Posts Tagged ‘Orwell’

What is the aim of a dictionary?

I am certainly my mother’s son. There are times when, as a teacher, I find myself channeling my mother, also a teacher herself. Growing up, this would usually arise when she would hear the destruction of the language. One example would be the word “vulnerable”, which was often (and still is) pronounced as “vun-rable”, thus doing away with the “l” sound altogether. At the time, I recall the way that she would enunciate the word carefully, precisely.
Come forward to more contemporary times and I am having to decide my own reaction as my two children, aged 8 and 5, have started to use the word “versing”. Versing, as in, “Who are we versing on the weekend?”
This clanger has been around a while now in Australia. Having taken a number of sporting teams over the years, we were often versing this school or that, or, after the event, who we versed on the weekend (clearly, the past tense usage of the event). The fact that there is only one form of the word, versus, has not got in the way of this level of functionality. For a while, having failed to correct its use, I tried a different tack. I’d say, “Okay, I’m prepared to accept the word versing, if you are prepared to alternate with againsting“. While they could recognise the discrepancy, they weren’t prepared to opt out of versing either.
And, I suppose, why should they? Am I the dinosaur who (admittedly mixing my metaphors) is tub thumping in order to force an unnecessary rigidity into language usage, thinking and application?
So, if U.S. president Warren Harding can cheerfully bring ‘normalcy’ (apocryphal tale or not)  into mainstream usage (the word does not even prompt the red-squiggly line as I type this), should I be reconciled to my fate and brought into the present day as an accepting acolyte…
What about the contrary position? If we are adding words to the current “lingo”, what about the words that are taking on archaic status? Year 8 students are the first to ‘do’ Shakespeare and I am often presented with queries such as “Is this old English (or sometimes, middle English)?”, despite most of the words still being recognisable, if not commonly used, today.
In writing this post, I “recalled” that the size of the complete Oxford dictionary was massive. Of course, completely underestimating what ‘massive’ meant, I decided to check online and ended up at the Dictionary Facts page of the OED. The totals are nothing short of stupendous, with such mind boggling elements including that it would take 60 years for one person to proof read the 1989 version, containing 291,500 entries and weighing in (in paper form) at over 60 kilos! It is wonderful and horrifying in equal measure. The average (whatever that means!) person today makes use of between 5000 (high school educated) to about 8000 words (college educated). I say about, as in looking up this question alone, the range of answers, depending on your choice of sources, varied quite wildly (20 000 was quoted by one optimistic site). If Shakespeare uses 17,677 different words in all of his works, what on earth is going on with the other 270 000 odd (give or take a few between friends!) words?!

Words

Words (Photo credit: Southernpixel – Alby Headrick)

Which brings me to another idea – perhaps heretical to some – Should we look to remove words as well as add them? Is a dictionary more of a historical document? A record of language (and thus society and culture) through all ages rather than just a device for looking up (at its most mundane) the meaning of the word you are now presented with? Going back a few posts of mine… does Orwell’s 1984 Newspeak Dictionary ironically help modern humanity with removing the morass of ultimately redundant words? This would at least give us a living dictionary, pertinent to all using it today.

But then the chance to come across that lovely, colourful and hopelessly archaic word would be lost forever.

PS: Thought I would close by mentioning a discussion that took place in my department yesterday about another ‘term’ doing the rounds with the students. The phrase “Don’t dog it” (and variations thereof) are in vogue – the word dog signifying Sir-you-are-being-slack-and-how-unfair-is-that! An example might be an attempt for a student to give me a high five, which, if I don’t respond within milliseconds, might elicit the “Don’t dog it!” The irony here is that dog seems to have become a verb or an adjective, while the usual idea of the noun has gone.

What current lingua franca are you facing in your locale from students conversing with you and other students? Would love to hear…

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How good are words! I enjoy seeing when senior students learn how a well placed word in a sentence has the power to resonate, giving off a ripple effect of nuance and meaning. Conversely, the sentence has to remain in balance, so students using five “big” four to five syllable words feels unwieldy, like the reader is wading through mud. For many students, having them appreciate that more is not necessarily more, can be a difficult thing that seems to be counter intuitive. Having an economy in writing can allow words the space to flex their power.
Ironically, I think George Orwell, in 1984, had a pretty good take on it. Look at the following, as Syme talks to Winston about his efforts on creating (or destroying) the new language for the upcoming 11th Edition Dictionary of Newspeak:

A word contains its opposite in itself. Take ‘good’, for instance. If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well – better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good’, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words – in reality, only one word.

The notion that if you remove one’s language, you remove their ability to see, imagine and think is compelling. However, is it possible to explore the other side of the equation. Is it possible to have “too much” language? I understand that there are more than fifty hues of the colour blue. Yet the ability to capture the exact hue one is witnessing is probably unlikely.

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Journey away on holidays – the view from the window as I type…

As a task, students can do or consider the following:
Look out the window and take in the view. Imagine that you call someone on the phone and, being so taken by what you see, set about describing the vista before you. Students can attempt to write, in a paragraph, the picture before them, or even an element of the whole. This is where the limitations of a language might become apparent. On one level, if language could do its “job” of communicating, then the result would be the equivalent of a photograph or facsimile. The listener, despite being deprived of the physical view, would be able to replicate the image in their own head. As a point of comparison, consider how effectively a musical score is able to transfer meaning, or mathematical notation. Of course, at its most reductive, music comes to four possibilities once a note is played. You can repeat the same pitch, have a higher or lower note, or rest. Words offer the potential to take this further, to almost limitless possibilities.

But who wants to be omniscient? Where is the pleasure in having precision in all facets of language when reading poetry? If we had a word for everything, would this equate to being a god-like individual who knows every joke and therefore every punchline before it can be delivered? While it is striking to have so many hues of blue, so many more are left uncharted and benefit from being couple with other adjectives.

In concluding, I counter one of the observations frequently posited by my students when we are analysing poetry – “You don’t think the poet intended all these meanings do you?”

The answer is “no” and “yes”. The beauty of poetry is its ability to conjure up word paintings as we read, based on our own experiences. However, I’ll sometimes show Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth in order to show both how a beautifully placed word exudes power and potency, and an ill fitting alternative can bring about diminishment.

Below is an early draft of Owen’s poem. In knowing the copy that we have with us today, it is appropriate to see how the poet played with words and their placement and, feeling dissatisfied with a choice, sought to improve or rectify the choices made. With writing, it is certainly a gestaltist approach – the sum of the writing is greater than the individual parts.

An early draft of what would become ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ – note the trial and error of word choices that Owen makes