A Changing View of Language

A Changing View of Language

I’m selective when it comes to slang; some words I take an instant dislike to, others grow on me. Who remembers rad from the 80’s? Does anybody still use the word to mean excellent? My brother and his friends picked it up very quickly at the time but I always hated it – an abbreviation and slang. Never! I will speak properly, thank you very much. Yes, I was more than a little pedantic as a child when it came to language and its usage.

Some aspects of that persist to this day. I make an effort to use specific words to convey nuanced meaning. I often feel frustrated when I am unable to recall the word for a particular concept. And, as I might have mentioned in an earlier post, I have been known to correct spelling and grammar on notices and suchlike. Obvious errors such as their/there, its/it’s and misplaced punctuation.

Spelling and grammar were drummed into me at school; I developed a view of the English language (the Queen’s English as it was named in several books) as having One True Way that was fixed and inviolate for all time. Grammar was a set of rules that formally defined sentence structure and, of course, rules must never be broken.

What happened between then and now? I slowly came to understand that this codification of language was incomplete and (shock!) not completely accurate. That wasn’t all: I also began to harbor the heretical belief that these rules obscured the truth that any language in current use is not static, that it is changing and evolving. The language is what people are using every day, not some idealized model locked away in a dusty tome.

So now I have reached the stage where I consider language to be a tool. The once-sacrosanct rules of grammar are now just a set of guidelines, advisory rather than prescriptive. The purpose of language is to transmit information, to allow one person to move an idea from inside their own head into the heads of other people. Accuracy is important – I want others to see the same mental pictures as I do, and to achieve this requires following the conventionally-understood meanings of words and phrases.

Spelling and grammar are not unimportant – they fulfill the function of improving clarity and comprehension. Errors introduce noise that obscures the message. If there are multiple interpretations of what I write or say then my meaning becomes unclear. Following the accepted conventions of language usage makes the job of the reader or listener easier.

So I no longer feel uncomfortable when I begin a sentence with a preposition. I feel free to occasionally split my infinitives. Slavishly following grammatical rules actually harms clarity because the words do not flow as naturally. Spelling is another aspect – on this blog I tend towards American English spellings because they will be more familiar to the majority of my audience. I am equally comfortable with either variant. I mostly avoid slang and jargon terms because they may be unfamiliar to some people; likewise I try to avoid terms that mean different things in different variants of English. Always be aware of your audience.

Say what you mean. Sound natural. Be accurate, clear and concise. Like any tool, language must be wielded with a degree of skill. Part of that skill is an awareness of the boundaries, without which your meaning fractures into myriad facets, each reflecting a part of the original but combining into a kaleidoscopic confusion of possible messages.

Loneliness Redux

Loneliness Redux

It was John Donne who wrote in 1624, “No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe”. Can’t say I disagree with this – the more I build protective walls around me, insulating myself from the world at large, the more lonely I feel. Humans are social animals and merely going through the motions, only interacting superficially, does not involve any connexion with others. I find I need some contact but I’m shut away.

The keep stands fast, ringed by its moat,
Secure, yet isolated.
Defending me from close approach;
Connexions subjugated.

All who try to find a portal,
Some water-gate unguarded,
Can only beat against stone walls
With which my self’s surrounded.

Fear builds these walls, fear of getting hurt, fear of censure or ridicule. These fears seem to feed on depression, growing stronger until they overwhelm me, forcing me to withdraw and take refuge behind the reinforced barriers of my mental “panic room”.

The trouble is that once those doors are closed, once the shutters come down, there is a coldness as my links to those around me are severed. Feelings are dulled and remote, like outside sounds heard through a closed door. In here I am safe from danger but also disconnected from positive influence – a dilemma.

Perfect isolation
Brings a deathlike stillness.
Colorless desert; expanse
Of infinite emptiness.

How to resolve this? It is paradoxical that in my loneliness I feel a need to be alone, to get away and be by myself for a while. To regain my balance, rebuild my strength and, hopefully, recover my happiness. Because at the moment I am down. Have been for some days or weeks now – not quite sure how long.

The blighted trees were once so green
But now stand gray and twisted.
My woodland haven, tranquil scene,
Destroyed, demolished, blasted.

I feel exhausted. There are reasons – I know what they are but not how to resolve them.

Solitary inmate; my prison
Is of my own making, no less
Secure for that. I hold no keys
That will unlock these cold steel bars.

Outside my cell the corridors
Are silent, no guards to patrol.
My small cell lost in this fastness.
I cry out; echoes fade to naught.

Trying to find some inner peace is difficult right now. I try to recall times of happiness and comfort such as walks in the countryside, views across lakes to distant hills and forests – but instead I find I am transported to exposed rocky slopes with the cold wind howling around me as the rain lashes down and thunder rumbles ominously in the distance. I am a long way from shelter and the day is rapidly drawing to an end to leave me on my own in the stormy night.

Trudging endlessly through the long night, the search for a place to rest seems a Sisyphean task. But I cling to the hope that the storm will abate, a new day will dawn and I will at last find a place to lay my head. To cast off my weariness and return to the light.

The Point of No Return

The Point of No Return

History and literature are full of examples of actions that cannot be undone, steps that cannot be retracted. Julius Caesar commanded his legions to cross the Rubicon, countless seaborne invaders have burned their boats, Shakespeare had Henry V exhort his troops “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead”. Common to these is the idea that, while the action might be a desperate gamble, turning away would equate to failure – come back with your shield or on it, death or glory.

Such actions are invariably described with the benefit of hindsight and portray the events as heroic and aspirational. But can they really be considered to set a good example – are there situations in which risking everything on the roll of a die is the rational course of action?

Obviously the answer depends on the consequences of turning away, of choosing not to act. In Caesar’s case his term as Proconsul had expired and he had been recalled to Rome in the face of Pompey’s accusations of insubordination and treason. If he had not invaded Italy from Gaul thus instigating a civil war he would have found himself much reduced, his political aspirations in ruins. For such an ambitious man that would have been intolerable; he preferred to risk defeat and death but was aware that he could count on significant military, public and political support. Bearing that in mind, it was a calculated risk.

I would describe myself as risk-averse – I tend towards courses of action that have less uncertainty, smaller chances of incurring harm. I find uncertainty – any kind of gambling for example – to be stressful. The worst kinds of situation I can imagine involve having to decide between courses of action that each carry risk: being between the devil and the deep blue sea. It is a combination of fear of the unknown and fear of the prospect of suffering injury.

Problems arise when faced with such dilemmas – I can easily be frozen into inaction by my fears, even if doing nothing carries its own risks. In consequence I will attempt to keep my options open, to leave myself a route back to where I started. To pass the point of no return is, to me, like jumping off a cliff (I have a fear of heights which makes this allusion particularly apt). I am over-aware of the consequences of failure and this biases my judgement to favor the path with the least bad risk rather than the one with the highest potential benefit.

It all boils down to fear and anxiety, those often irrational feelings, that steer me away from particular situations or courses of action. I guess I am at least predictable in that I will act to minimize my anxiety. Avoiding becoming trapped – cornered – with risk on every side is crucial to this. There will be no passing the point of no return for me, thank you.

Let’s Talk About Me

Let’s Talk About Me

Writing can only achieve so much. There are times when I feel I am holding in so many silent thoughts, so much unexpressed emotion that I get mentally exhausted. It’s difficult – if not impossible – to let go, to let it out. Like a locked door to which I do not possess the key. The pressure builds up behind the barriers and the strain makes me fractious.

Mental tension leads to physical tension, that characteristic tightening across the shoulders causing muscular discomfort, aches and pains. How can I relieve this stress? Get things off my mind?

It doesn’t help that I subconsciously avoid analyzing the causes of my feelings. As if afraid to confront them head-on I avoid letting my inner eye gaze long upon them. Must avoid eye contact, even in here. So these nebulous concerns accumulate while I refuse to reify them, to give them substance, because that would require that I acknowledge their presence and admit that I cannot handle them.

But admit to whom? To speak of such things to another would need such a degree of candor – such openness – that I would feel too exposed and vulnerable, succumbing in that instant to overwhelming fear, and hastily slam the shutters closed.

To what kind of person could I reveal the detailed depths of my inner turmoil? Whom could I trust implicitly to keep the secrets of my soul safe from the sight of others? It’s a puzzle, to be sure – I would have to know somebody well to feel comfortable enough to consider opening up, but having done so I could not subsequently feel comfortable around them. It would be as if I were laid bare. So I end up believing that exploiting such a level of trust would destroy it.

The end result is that I continue to accumulate the hurt and pain, trying to keep it locked away from my day-to-day thoughts. Trying to appear carefree, chasing distractions and amusements that will occupy my mind for a while and give me some respite. Until the darkness returns, as it inevitably will, since I cannot open my mind’s doors and let in the light. I am simply not able to talk about me.

Blame Culture

Blame Culture

Whose fault is it?

It seems there is no longer such a thing as an accident in the strictest sense. Commercials pop up all around to urge us to sue for compensation – “Have you had an accident that wasn’t your fault?

I remember when tripping over some object left lying around caused embarrassment at one’s carelessness and lack of attention – I didn’t see that there. Now, rather than being personally responsible for one’s own safety and taking care to spot and avoid hazards, it is up to everybody else on the planet to make my environment risk-free on pain of legal action.

Is it just me or is there something wrong with this picture? Whatever happened to common sense? Surely if I choose a course of action that involves some risk then it is my own fault, and nobody else’s, if I incur – or cause – injury. It is my responsibility to be aware of the risks and take steps to mitigate them.

Let’s take the scenario of crossing the street. Without warning I step out into the road and get hit by a truck whose driver didn’t have chance to stop. Based on the premise that whatever happens to me cannot be my own fault then obviously it must have been the driver’s fault – he was going too fast or failed to think that I might take it into my head to cross the road right in front of him. Hope he’s got a good lawyer!

Or perhaps my assumption was flawed. Consider the possibility that it was my own fault, that I am responsible for myself. That if I don’t want to spend time in the ER then I should look before I step into the road. That if I don’t check that there is no traffic – if I don’t take reasonable steps to reduce the risk – then I am to blame for whatever happens to me.

What about a different situation (one that really happened to somebody I know)? You are walking under a ladder when the person working above drops something on your head. In my mum’s case it was a window cleaner’s wet sponge – she saw the funny side – but it could have been something that would cause injury. My immediate reaction is that walking under a ladder on which somebody is working is a pretty stupid thing to do and you deserve whatever you get.

The point is that, with a few exceptions, window cleaners do not deliberately drop things on passers by walking underneath. If it is not a deliberate act then it falls into the category of an accident. Yes, he dropped his sponge and it hit somebody. But that person chose to take the risk of walking under the ladder. Some might say that there should be warning signs or barriers; however my opinion is that the presence of the ladder is sufficient warning in itself.

Which brings me to my final point here: what is gained by apportioning blame here? Does the window cleaner benefit from blaming the pedestrian for walking under his ladder? Does the pedestrian benefit by blaming the window cleaner for dropping his sponge? I don’t believe either of them does. What would benefit the pedestrian in this case is to analyze the cause of the accident and learn to avoid similar situations in the future. In other words, don’t walk under ladders!

There are situations where harm is caused by reckless or malicious behavior – these are not accidents but rather incidents: the effects of actions. In these cases the responsibility lies with the one who caused the incident – it is their fault. Key is the idea that we are all individually responsible for our own actions and should attempt to reduce the harmful effects of those actions on ourselves and especially on others. Failing to fulfill this responsibility is reckless if not deliberate but malicious – even criminal in some instances – if done with knowledge and intent.