The Case for Foreign Language (and…Middle English?)

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) released a report stating that a mediocre or deficient public school system is a threat to national security and prosperity. While I do not agree with all of the reports recommendations (some of which demonstrate a misleading selection of research), I was delighted to see an emphasis on the importance of foreign languages alongside reading, math, and science. I was not so delighted to see, though was not surprised, that American public schools perform so poorly at preparing citizens in foreign languages. Some have criticized the report as too alarmist and a replay of the “Nation at Risk” report from the 1980s. Perhaps. It does appear to highlight the worst of the schools at the expense of great improvements. But if it starts a new conversation about the importance of education in our culture, I commend it.

Regarding foreign language instruction in the US, the report states:

Although the United States is a nation of immigrants, roughly eight in ten Americans speak only English and a decreasing number of schools are teaching foreign languages.

This as another blow to the uninformed proponents of the English-only movement. Clearly, the prevalence of English speakers in the US is not under threat. And the cited lack of quality foreign language instruction available at an early age has a negative impact on (the report says “crippled”) our nation’s “ability to communicate effectively with others in diplomatic, military, intelligence, and business contexts.”  The report goes on to state:

The Task Force does not necessarily believe that every U.S. student should be reading Chinese; indeed, too many are not reading English well enough. However, the group is troubled by the language deficit, and fears that it will prevent U.S. citizens from participating and competing meaningfully, whether in business or diplomatic situations. It will also have a negative impact on government agencies and corporations attempting to hire people knowledgeable about other countries or fluent in foreign languages.

This is a cause for alarm. The lack of access to early and quality foreign language programs affects nearly every aspect of national and economic security.

The latter quote hints at US English deficiencies as well.  In some ways, this trend in mediocrity could be said to extend far beyond language proficiency in the public school systems and into the greater reading culture itself.

Take, for example, publishing efforts that modernize the archaic spelling and language of Middle and Early Modern English. This trend to modernize, for example, the language of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare, assumes a diminished intelligence on the part of the reading public. The language of these authors is not very difficult. Ezra Pound once observed this fact stating, “Anyone who is too lazy to master the comparatively short glossary necessary to understand Chaucer deserves to be shut out from the reading of good books for ever.” While eternal banishment from good books may be a bit draconian, the idea does recognize the fact that what editors are modernizing (by assuming a lazy readership?) is not difficult material to begin with. Modernizing underestimates the abilities of the modern reader to interpret meaning and relevance of any given text. Moreover, it also prohibits a greater understanding of the English language itself.

And if this can be said of modernizing Chaucer, who wrote more than 600 years before our time, how much more could it be said of doing this for publications written only 200 years ago. For example, a recent re-publication of the Federalist Papers has them “reworked into ‘modern’ English” (hint: they were already written in Modern English) ostensibly to make them more accessible to readers (and are provided with the editor’s own illuminating interpretation, of course). This concept declares to us all that modern readers are just too stupid to understand without a little bit of pedantic hand-holding.

Editors underestimate the abilities of their readership, schools produce readers who are deficient, and this provides evidence that the editors’ underestimations were correct. That’s not good enough. And if the CFR’s assessment is correct, this assumption contributes to greater problems regarding security and economic prosperity. Isn’t that argument enough to change this trend? I have some hope that this report might start the needed conversation in the right direction. Not much hope, but some.

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin


Dirty Words and Gender Switching in the Blues

What do the words nut, lemon, rider, and cock have in common?

According to Debra Devi, author of the book, The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzuthey are all sexual euphemisms that can switch gender references in blues music. An example of gender switching occurs with the use of riding as a metaphor for sexual intercourse. Devi explains that this usage has been common for centuries:

…but the rider was typically male. In the blues, though, a rider can be of either sex. Both male and female singers sing the traditional song “C.C. Rider,” for example; they just change the gender of the rider.

“C.C. Rider, see what you have done
You made me love you now your man [woman] done come”

An “easy rider” is someone who sponges off his or her lover.

To read more, see the article Debra Devi: Dirty Words and Gender Switching in the Blues

…or read the book.

English-only? There is a Cure!

Various versions of the English-only movement have been in existence in the US since the early 1800s. The idea that having one official language establishes some sort of political or cultural unity has a pernicious hold on the minds of many Americans. I was not surprised, therefore, to see the specter of English-only arise again in the political sphere.

In addressing potential state-hood for Puerto Rico, (a primarily Spanish speaking US territory) Former US Senator Rick Santorum was recently quoted as saying:

Like any other state, there has to be compliance with this and any other federal law… And that is that English has to be the principal language. There are other states with more than one language such as Hawaii but to be a state of the United States, English has to be the principal language. (Reuters. March 14, 2012)

Not only does this display a mind-numbingly misinformed understanding of federal law regarding the supposed requirement that English be the primary language, but it is also certain to not win over any friends in a primarily Spanish speaking community. While there are some states that have passed laws making English the official language, not all of them have done so nor, contrary to what might be asserted otherwise, does federal law require it.

For reasons that should be apparent to anyone with half of a functioning neuron, organizations such as the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) and Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (English-only position paper) are opposed to English-only efforts. The LSA stated their opposition in a 1986-7 resolution that declares, among other things,

The English language in America is not threatened. All evidence suggests that recent immigrants are overwhelmingly aware of the social and economic advantages of becoming proficient in English, and require no additional compulsion to learn the language.

American unity has never rested primarily on unity of language, but rather on common political and social ideals.

Like I said, anyone with half of a functioning neur-… never mind. You’d think that, in a 21st century America, we’d not even have to state something so obvious. Somehow facts just shouldn’t get in the way of political expediency, I guess.

Though I often work with English language learners, I don’t often encounter the sorts who openly advertise their allegiance to the English-only movement. This has occurred just once. I tried to talk about the myths that the concept of English-only promotes but wasn’t getting anywhere.

During the conversation I was reminded of a quote by Noam Chomsky describing the object of linguistic theory:

Linguistic theory is concerned with an ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogeneous speech-community, who knows its language perfectly and is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant conditions such as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interests, and errors (random or characteristic) in applying his knowledge of the language in actual performance.

In short, it is something that does not exist. Speech communities are not homogeneous and no speakers are perfect in their knowledge of their language. We are all subject to memory and recall limitations, distractions, attention shifts and errors. We are all imperfect speakers.

Perhaps I failed to articulate my position, or perhaps my fellow commuter was too stubborn to see my wisdom, but when he also affirmed a belief that people with accents shouldn’t teach English (of course, we all have accents) I resorted to a tactic based on the idea that we are all imperfect speakers. I made him doubt his own language proficiency.

“Before you say that, shouldn’t you speak English better than you do?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you’ve already made numerous errors in this conversation.”

The conversation ended shortly thereafter.

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin

The Hermemorphic Shift: a Parody

Why'd you pull me into this, huh?

Why’d you pull me into this, huh?

A seldom discussed linguistic principle, the Hermemorphic Shift is named after Hermes, the Greek god of language. The principle states:

In any conversation in which the meaning or pronunciation of a word is contested, a speaker’s religious belief about the word in question trumps all other scientific and conventional usages.

In short, it is an appeal to having access to a god’s knowledge of the word. Thus, for an otherwise competent speaker to change the meaning of a word to suit their purposes they need only say something to the nature of “It is my religious belief that the meaning is otherwise.” Case closed.

When it comes to disputes about pronunciation this is rarely a serious matter. Claiming heavenly or elysianic authority over the pronunciation of atomic weapons as NOO-kyoo-ler, for example, or that the people of our nation are uh-MER-kins, doesn’t tend to produce mutual unintelligibility. (Though if more Americans favoring the latter pronunciation understood the joke, they might work harder at their elocution).

However, when it comes to disputing word meaning, a heremorphic shift is absolutely corrosive to the discourse. Although both speakers may hold the same, or similar, religious beliefs about all other word usages, the first to rely upon this principle for a word in dispute is usually the “winner” of the debate. As an example, consider the following (partially) parodic dialogue inspired by Rep. Tim Murphy:

S1: Is the morning after pill or something like that an abortifacient drug?

S2: This drug is a contraceptive, not an abortifacient. It does not interfere with pregnancy. If the morning pill were taken, and a female were pregnant, the pregnancy is not interrupted. That’s the definition of abortifation.

S1: Ma’am, that is just your interpretation and I appreciate that.

S2: A contraceptive prevents pregnancy before fertilization. So it’s not my interpretation. That’s what the scientists and doctors…

S1: We’re not talking about scientists. Almighty Wotan himself told me that this pill is an abortifacient, using that very word! Ma’am, I’m asking you about a religious belief. This is, therefore, a violation of a religious belief. Wotan himself condemns it.

If by definition a substance is a contraceptive but the speaker’s religious belief declares that it it not, then it is not. Science, definition, and conventional usage (norma loquendi) be damned!

The speakers may be using the same words but now they are decidedly not speaking the same language. The winning strategy by employing a hermemorphic shift is, therefore, through assuring mutual unintelligibility. It dissolves the meaning of the word in mid-discourse and without warning to such an extreme degree that words, in general, no longer have meaning in the conversation. The complete lack of even the appearance of meaning, and the subsequent difficulties in analysis that ensues, is why linguists shun this principle.

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin

If You Know the Difference Between “Dragon” and “Wyrm”…

you might be a fantasy geek…

but you are most assuredly a language geek.

As an ardent fan of fantasy and science fiction, I am often exposed to authors who use the words dragon and worm (frequently spelled wyrm) interchangeably. Occasionally, the word drake is thrown in for good measure. Perhaps the most famous author to use dragon/worm, and sometimes drake, synonymously in their work is J.R.R. Tolkien. At least, it was while reading the French translation of his book, The Hobbit, that this pairing caught my attention.

A passage on Thror‘s map, that follows the title page, reads as follows:

Loin au Nord

sont les Montagnes Rocheuses


La Lande Desséchée

d’ou vinrent

les Grands Vers

It is a straightforward translation of the English original:


to the North


the Grey Mountains


the Withered Heath

whence came the

Great Worms.

but notice the word vers (worms) in bold. Until I read this in French, I had not given much thought to the idea that worm can also refer to dragon in fantasy fiction. Curious about this, I sought to understand why English has this archaic sense of worm and if this sense is shared in the French language. Satisfying this curiosity began my love affair with the history of the English language.

The first recorded instance of the pairing dragon/worm is in the epic poem Beowulf.

Hwäðre him gesælde, þät þät swurd þurhwôd wrätlîcne wyrm, þät hit on wealle ätstôd, dryhtlîc îren; draca morðre swealt.

Wyrm is the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) that means “serpent” and may share an Indo-European root with the Latin vermis (worm). Draca is another Latin import into Old English that carries a similar meaning, “large serpent.” Through the years, both of these words have undergone changes. Wyrm had an orthographic change into the modern worm. Draca eventually transformed into drake. This is not, however, the same drake that refers to a male duck and has an entirely different etymology. Although draca and dragon share the same Latin root, it appears that the French dragon didn’t entered the English language until after the Norman invasion in 1066.

I’m unfamiliar with the history of this synonymy in the centuries between Beowulf and The Hobbit but it is obvious that dragon became the most common word to denote the winged, fire-breathing beasts we’ve all come to know and love. Worm and drake were both relegated to a place in archaism. Beyond The Hobbit, this synonymy is present in the settings of other fantasy novels as well as fantasy role-playing games. This synonymy has also produced wyrmling, usually meaning a small or baby dragon.

The history of dragon/worm, then, is a uniquely English story. Therefore, the question still remains as to the French translator’s choice to use ver (worm) in a reference to dragons. Was this just a straight literal translation without an understanding of the connection between dragon and worm in English linguistic history (as it appears to be)? Or is there a similar pattern in French romans fantastiques?

According to Le Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé (TLFi), ver, in the form of verme, referred to the larvae of certain insects from as early as 980AD. Others have ver originating with the Latin vermis (worm). It would appear, therefore, that the English wyrm and the French ver have a similar historical root but significantly divergent original meanings. Etymologically speaking, I’ve yet to find a connection between ver and dragon.

What about a stylistic connection in literature? I read French fantasy novels as often as I can and, admittedly, am a slow reader. I have not yet, however, found a similar trend in French fantasy literature that uses ver as a reference to dragon. Until such time as I do, I’ll consider the issue as just a literal translation…and thank the translator for the seed of inspiration. Merci beacoup!

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin