21. The basic story of language

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Instructions for Lesson 21

1. Read this page.
2. Imagine "Hail, Britannia" being played by a military band.
    Expect drill exercises in class.
3. Work on your research report (assigned in Lesson 18, due
    in Lesson 22). 






Module 1

1: Orientation  
2: Goals   

Module 2

  3: Euthyphro  
     4: The Library
 5: The Apology   
    6: Citation   
    7: Crito
    8: Phaedo  
    9: Exam Prep   
10: Plato Exam

Module 3

11: Research Project 
12: Research 101   
13: Books   
14: the Librarian   
15: the Web   
16: conferences  
17: Joy of Research 
18: Reasoning 

Module 4

19: Outlines 
20: Review the Plan:
21: Language 
22: Dr E's Grammar
23: Peer Review  
24: Hit Parade 

Module 5

25: About the Exam
26: Mock Final 
27: Exam Prep
28: Graduation 


1. The defense of Britain

In this lesson, at long last, we turn our attention to the consideration of the most basic level of academic writing--language itself. And let's start with almost everybody's favorite question: why is English such a pain? 

As we all know, ancient Britain was relatively secure. First, it was an island ringed by monster-infested waters on every side. Second, if invaders managed to cross this perilous sea, they were confronted by nasty warriors who painted themselves blue and took no prisoners. Third, if somehow the enemies managed to sneak past the armies and disguise themselves as born and bred Englishmen, the most stealthy of all British defenses came into play. What was that? the English language! What a brilliant fortification, stronger than any castle, more harrowing than the deepest of waters! One who has learned a different language at Mommy's knee is fated forever to pronounce English as distinctively as Arnold Schwarzenegger. It may not be obvious how we good, proper, native English speakers can terminate Arnold, but it's obvious that he's someone to be dealt with because he's not one of us.

And that, briefly, is my just-so story of English--which you can believe if you like or disbelieve at your peril!

2. Babel

A variety of stories are told about how language began. One is based on Darwin's idea of natural selection--that species evolve through competition (the so-called "survival of the fittest"), including sexual selection. In natural selection, the females do much of the selecting. When females choose the same male traits, generation after generation, then those favored traits (and the female disposition to choose them) soon become dominant in the population of the species. The trait compounds, and eventually plain, ordinary birds look like peacocks--only because peahens for many generations preferred mates with the most fancy tails.

In the Darwinian theory of language, human beings have their own variation on the peacock's tail. Our female ancestors happened to prefer guys who could talk--and out-talk their rivals. The preference grew stronger through the generations. The result, according to evolutionary theorists like Geoffrey Miller (The Mating Mind), was Shakespeare, love poetry, and fantastically extravagant human speech in general. Men talked, and women chose. Men succeeded genetically by talking women into believing them. Women succeeded genetically by analyzing the men's stories and detecting the lies--which may be why women today are comparatively better students than men in English 101 and 102 and 103 and 104 and . . .

But there are other, older stories about the origin of languages. The most important for us in this course appears in Genesis, chapter 11.

1: And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.

2: And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.

3: And they said one to another, Go to, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.

4: And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

5: And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men built.

6: And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

7: Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.

8: So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

9: Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

Why so many languages? If language is meant for communication, why so many languages? Communication would be easier, wouldn't it, if we all spoke the same tongue?

Linguist George Steiner (After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation), estimates that humans since the beginning may have spoken as many as 20,000 separate languages, the large majority of which are now extinct. The root of the "Babel problem" of multiple languages, according to Steiner, lies in the deep human desire for privacy and territory. Languages traditionally have not been designed to improve communication, or to express things better, but to allow secrecy and to maintain cultural isolation. A cult or tribe can protect its membership roll by making the members' language intelligible only to fellow members. This language barrier will prevent an exchange of ideas with outsiders who might have dangerous (i.e., superior or conflicting) insights. 

It's easy to see that the Tower of Babel is dismantled a little more every day with the development of new vocabularies and new styles of speech. Join a club, business, profession, religious group or academic discipline, and enter a local world where language is at least partly differentiated from outside speech. (Just think of the specialized vocabulary that you have learned in this course: "signal phrase," "works cited," "citation," "MLA," "academic," "sophist," "ProQuest," "abstract," "Socratic," etc.) And within each of these little worlds the differentiation continues forever as part of an irresistible, on-going process of social separation, like expansion of the Big Bang universe.

Check it out for yourself. Visit the library and gaze up at any professional journal with a subject that is outside of your field of expertise. Its techno-babble will look like a formidable barrier to entry, designed to keep you in the dark. And it probably will. Yet, listen carefully to your profs, and you may learn their distinct tongues: computer science, philosophy, religion, history, law, sociology, anthropology, biology, medicine, ethnic studies, psychology, literature, art. . . 

3. Standard English

Academia has not only a growing variety of specialist vocabularies but an overall code of grammar, common to almost all academic divisions. That's what we English 101 instructors call "standard English" (meaning conventional US academic language). Newcomers prove that they belong in the academy by showing that they are "literate" (meaning that what they write is standard English).

The gatekeepers of academia--the Drs. Gutchess and all instructors of English 101 in colleges and universities everywhere--defend the place from invasion by illiterate hordes. We are armed with thousands of standard English conventions of spelling, punctuation, writing mechanics, grammar, and usage. The complexity of this system is hard to exaggerate. The Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language contains 1800 pages and 3,500 rules, but English grammar is simple, compared with English spelling. The spelling conventions in our language have been devised so that mastery of oral, spoken English is of almost no help at all when it comes to writing. For example, we all know the sound of "sh" in English speech, when we hear it, but how do we spell it? At least fourteen ways:

  1. shoe
  2. sugar
  3. issue
  4. mansion
  5. mission
  6. nation
  7. suspicion
  8. ocean
  9. nauseous
10. conscious
11. chaperon
12. schist
13. fuchsia
14. pshaw

You may remember that we began this course with a writing sample. It's always a revealing exercise. One semester a student confessed the following:

I'm not to good at writting. I know I'm weak in grammer so I'm hopping to learn alot in hear.

Students who write sentences like these can speak fluently--and not unintelligently. Downtown their language passes as normal Drydenite, but up here on the hill above town their written words instantly betray them as nonmembers. What matters in our literate culture is not how the words sound but how they look.

4. The classes of speakers

Right: Within English there are of course many Englishes. The strata of England's social classes have for centuries been marked by varied dialects, accents, grammars and usages. To gain close access to the king, you had to be an official ambassador from a foreign country or else you needed to speak "the King's English." To begin to gain access to aristocratic circles, you needed to ditch your commoner's tongue and learn to speak like a gentleman or a lady--as did Liza Doolittle, the Cinderella of London's Cockney slums in My Fair Lady.

The private school and college educational system in England has been based for hundreds of years on the teaching of standard English to aristocrats and would-be aristocrats. By planting similar schools throughout the British Empire, England has given the world a language machine more powerful than any other on the face of the earth since the Lord's intervention at Babel. Today about one-quarter of the world's population, some 1.5 billion people, speak some form of English. Some 85% of the world's science journals, and some 80% of pages on the "world wide web" at least pretend to be written in English. There are many more speakers of English today in India and China than there are in the United Kingdom and North America--which may mean that the kind of "standard English" taught at TC3 and Cornell and Oxford and Cambridge someday will be superseded by some form of Asian standard English.

Language has an exclusionary social purpose. In the case of spoken language, the barriers can be almost insurmountable. Fortunately in the case of written language, it is possible with enough hard work to fool everybody and get past the gatekeepers. All you've got to do is copy what you see--and avoid plagiarism. Pay attention to Hacker's rulebook and to Dr. E's grammar sequence. These things matter.

Can you tell which of the following are nonstandard English, from an academic point of view?

What I must go! (=I don't want to go.)
Where young!
(=I'm certainly not young!)
He can play golf, or not?
Seldom she was at home.
You are coming to the meeting, isn't it?
I have been singing yesterday
I finish eat
(=I have eaten)
aircrafts, equipments, luggages, machineries, furnitures
a luggage, a furniture, a good advice
younger to
junior than
more better
(=plural who or whoever)
big big fish
(=many fish)
That man he is tall
My friend she was telling me
Under construction bridge
(=bridge under construction)
(=having several floors)
When you leaving?

And what about Americanism like
collateral damage -- preventative war --unlawful combatant
-- enbedded journalist
? Should such things be allowed?


5. Academic language

Academic language 

  • avoids street slang (Hacker tab 9c). It avoids echoing common slogans and cliches (Hacker tab 9b). The language is slow to borrow words anf phrases from popular culture, current fads and fashions. 

  • avoids insensitivity, slurs and name calling (Hacker tab 9e). The language is polite and inclusive.

  • is rational. The user's goal generally is to persuade others, so the strategy is to sound both well-informed and thoughtful, never angry, pompous or obscure (Hacker's "jargon," 9a). Humor is used only sparingly.

  • is clear and accurate (despite the complexity of the subject matter). The idea is primary; the words used to express the idea must not get in the way (Hacker tab 1). 

Like all languages, academic language is learned by hanging around where the language is being used skillfully. To learn to write it, be sure to read and to study the best models that you can find.    

Assignment (due in Lesson 22): Continue work on your draft research report, as assigned in Lesson 18





God may have saved the Queen, but the English language certainly helped! It detected terrorists and foreign spies with far greater sophistication than any metal detector, radar, sonar, rack or torture device.


"Speak that I may see thee." --Ben Jonson











Image left: Beatles' fans go crazy in the 1960's. Of all of the words spoken in his lifetime, it seems obvious to Dr. G that the most powerful didn't come from any President or prophet or scientist or advertising agency. Nobody got results like the Beatles.









Left: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Tower of Babel (1563). Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Elongated just for fun by Dr. G.















Left: George Steiner












































gutchess@englishare.net                    Academic writing home page                    Gary Gutchess 2003