Mr. Eure | Brewster High School
May 14, 2013Posted by on
Congratulations. You made it.
Of course, our work doesn’t end after the exam. It’s time for a different kind of study of language to take center stage. (Or as the first of Orwell’s rules might have me rewrite that, it’s time for language to enter the scene and chew a little scenery.) We start with linguaphilia, a word formed from the Latin lingua,”tongue” or “language,” and phila, “dear” or “beloved.” It means a love of language, of words and phrases, of how we strings together letters and sounds to make meaning—and it is the subject of your next unit of study. Our essential questions:
- Is the English language truly in decline?
- Do semantic debates matter?
- How do Internet-driven shifts in communication, such as texting and LOLspeak, affect us?
Let’s get into the background reading. I’ve already given you in this post the first (and arguably most influential) modern treatment of it: George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” Spend a little time with this, and it will inevitably shape how you scavenge the texts around you for words and phrases. You’ve also read Geoffrey Nunberg’s “The Decline of Grammar,” a lengthier argument from 1983 that explores the same issues—it was one of the passages on the 2001 multiple-choice practice exam. After the jump, you’ll find a regular plethora (as opposed to an irregular plethora? I just like the assonance of the phrase) of links to more perspectives, plus your assignment.
The more contemporary work of lingauphiles must begin with David Foster Wallace, whose 2001 essay on the democracy of English, “Tense Present,” is well worth reading in full. Wallace gives you, along with Orwell and Nunberg, three critical surveys of the language around us, each one striving to articulate the line between form and function, meaning and artistry, grammar and morality, and so on. Read them well; they are your guides to a more insightful consideration of the words and phrases you like and dislike.
Of course, they are not the only background available to you. You might begin with linguaphiles.blogspot.com, a blog devoted to everything from the writing of Stanley Fish to YouTube videos on cursing. You might look in the archives of Schott’s Vocab, a language-based feature in The New York Times; this entry on favorite words is especially germane.
One of the more insightful essays on the power of words is this essay on adverb use; its focus on science-fiction belies its usefulness in every kind of writing, from academic essays to poetry. Continuing in a contemporary vein, you might read about Ammon Shea, the man who read the entire Oxford English Dictionary; this article from The LA Times pulls out some of the best words from his account (and offers you links to buy the book itself).
If you are interested in how dictionaries expand their contents, you should look for the lists of new entries that appear each year. This compilation of new words is drawn from various dictionaries in 2008; here is the list for Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in 2009; and while the aim is decidedly satirical, South Park mixes insight with their crudeness in the 2009 language-centric episode “The F Word.”
Your discussion will not be centered around words alone (like Orwell, Wallace, and Nunberg, we are looking at all aspects of the language we use, from idioms to slang to spelling), but this post will be. In the comments section, you will exchange and analyze and celebrate your favorite words and phrases. Provide your selection, offering a quick explanation as to why. You might turn to the (poorly updated) site My Favorite Word, which has some interesting entries, including a master list of sorts; of course, you should primarily use the background reading to focus your insight. In fact, I will delineate the links embedded in the preceding paragraphs, so that you can organize your approach:
- George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” (1946)
- Geoffrey Nunberg, “The Decline of Grammar” (1983)
- David Foster Wallace, “Tense Present” (2001)
- Linguaphiles.blogspot.com (~2009)
- Schott’s Vocab: Favorite. Word. Ever. (2009)
- Charlie Jane Anders, “Seriously, What’s So Bad About Adverbs?” (2009)
- Carolyn Kellog, “26 Favorite Words from ‘Reading the OED'” (2009)
- Ben Zimmer, “Dictionaries Roll Out the New Words” (2008)
- Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition (2009)
- My Favorite Word: The List of Words (~2009)
The next post will give you the chance to discuss your least favorite words and phrases, if you find yourself drawn to the critical tones of some of the authors above. You may even use that space for jeremiads (one of my favorite words); for now, let’s celebrate the language we like. Limit yourself to one word or phrase per comment; feel free, however, to comment more than once. Remember to reply to your peers and track replies to you.