Category Archives: The Language We Speak

The language of Hemmingway, Bukowski, Dahl, Flemming, and Chandler.

Docile Whale

Here’s one of those little things that amuses me far more than it should: my wife gave me this notebook to use at work. She said, “It’s friendly. The children will like it.” And it is and they do.

But I like it because of its friendly and charming little poem. Across the top it says: “I’m feeling much better. I live as I please. I like the natural flow of time. How are you?”

Well, I’m just great, thanks for asking! You docile whale you.


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Filed under Learning From the Master, The Language We Speak, The Languages We Don't Speak So Well, True Thoughts on True Life


During episode 105 of Californication, the protagonist, Hank Moody as played by David Duchovny, sets off on a beautiful diatribe about the decline of the English language through blogspeak while appearing on the Henry Rollins show.

It’s a great speech in a great episode of a great show. So, great, right?

The trouble is, it’s based on a false premise: Hank’s rant is based on the idea that there is a correct way of speaking English and that blogspeak is nowhere near it. In fact, English is a beautiful, complicated language that succeeds because of the ease with which it can be altered, manipulated, re-purposed, and re-worked.

So, first things first. Moody (or, more realistically, the show writer) gets wound up by his girlfriend using LOL in actual conversation. He cites this as an example of the decline of the English language through the use of blogging and other technologies. He goes on to state that we are all only psuedo-communicating because of this; we are not really communicating using the full glory of the English language.

And, again, I call bullshit.

English was spread around the world through a complicated web of colonialism, commercialism, capitalism, religious and democratic evangelism, and simple pragmatism. But then, so was Spanish. And French.

So why has English become the default international language? Why is English the second language favored by almost every country of the globe? The answer lies in English’s inherent adaptability. New words can be created by advertising agencies (Xerox, Kodak) or borrowed from other languages (plaza, garage), or stolen outright to be re-purposed for something new (robot, soda). Additionally, Greek and Latin roots make for dozens of synonyms and antonyms thereby almost guaranteeing that there is at least one word people feel comfortable using.

Further, the grammar of English is robust enough that there are several alternative ways of expressing the same or similar thoughts, allowing speakers of other languages the luxury of finding the way that best works with their thinking patterns. (This is why language teachers can identify students native languages from the mistakes made in English.)

Couple this with the fact that English has no academy while France and Spain do; English has no established authority to tell us what the correct form of expression is. So, while Americans may say, “I don’t have any cash on me.” the English can say “I haven’t got any cash on me.” and both expressions are correct. This extends to vocabulary as well, as I pointed out above.

Last, think about slang and natural expression. None of us, and I do mean none, speak slang or expression free. We all use idioms and metaphorical language on a daily basis to help express ideas or communicate thoughts from one person to another. And vocabulary developed on the internet, used with appropriate grammar is no different from using an established idiom from the 17th century.

All of this taken together gives us, as I said, a robust, changeable language that is not constricted by the need to prove what is correct or what is right. As long as listeners can understand clearly what is being meant by the speaker, it is correct and proper English, no matter where it comes from.

I’m done ranting now. Thanks for reading.

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Throw Away Lines

I stayed up late last night, re-reading an old favorite: Glen Cook’s The Black Company. It is a military fantasy, telling the story through the eyes of the company physician and annalist. The world is bleak, harsh, and gritty; the story is primarily action and military campaigning with a dash of romanticism and politics thrown in. It is a very good read.

And that is what I wanted to study. Cook is very good, in my ever-so-humble opinion, at showing us the depth and breadth of the world he has created without ever pausing for pure description or exposition. Instead, all the details of the campaign are given in the protaganist’s writings, and all the history of the characters and setting comes through throw away lines that have very little to do with the action of the moment. It is these lines coming every once in a while that build the background over the course of the novel.

This is something I have been thinking about a lot over the course of this month as I gear up for Nanowrimo next month. I have my characters and settings, and an idea of the story, but I have been considering changing writing styles. Both of my previous attempts were in different styles – conversational and first person limited, respectively – and I thought I might try something different. (For one thing, I have decided to try to limit myself to only one or two clauses per sentence, unlike my usual run-on descriptives.)

So I have been re-reading a few of my old favorites, trying to analyze just why they are my favorites and if there is anythind I can steal borrow from the authors. In this case, I would really like to be able to paint the background without ever having to flashback or throw in exposition, similar to what Cook does.

Something to try, I guess.

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Impractical Linguistics

It’s no secret that I love languages.  It’s also no secret that I think learning languages is a royal pain in the fundament.

My students know that I study Japanese and Spanish, although I freely admit that I usually only study the later when I am thoroughly sick of the former and can not stand the site of another kanji or double-particle.  They also know that I am an advocate of the preservation and renewal of small or dying languages.  In higher level classes we often talk about preservation methods and the reasons for and against the active, mandatory learning of these languages.

Recently, however, the discussions have grown an off-shoot:  Which impractical languages would you like to learn?

And, of course, by “impractical” I’m not trying to slight any language, but the reality is, that in this day and age, it is simply impractical to study some languages.  I study Japanese because I live here, and Spanish because it is one of the more common languages in the world and spoken in many of the places to which I would like to travel.

But, given a choice; given the freedom just to learn with no need of any practical reason, I would study Cherokee, Hawaiian, and Yiddish.

These three languages fascinate me while being completely irrelevant to my life (even if just for the time being), not to mention that my reasons for wanting to learn are somewhat frivolous if not downright silly.

I would love to take the time to give Cherokee some serious study.  I have roots in the language in that I have Cherokee ancestors, and I think it has immense historic value, especially for Americans.   But the reason I want to study it?  Just so I could seem cool by muttering cryptic sounding phrases to myself and then refusing to explain them in English.  Frivolous, right?

My only reason for wanting to study Hawaiian is that I maintain a fantasy of sitting on one of the more secluded, less touristy beaches in Hawaii, plunking away at a ukelele and singing Hawaiina love songs.  (Oy.  Like you haven’t got something equally idiotic bouncing away inside your happy, little skull?)

And Yiddish.  Why would I like to study Yiddish?  Is it because I’m Jewish?  No.  Because I live in New York or Eastern Europe?  No.  Because I’m studying the history of the middle East?  No.  I just think it has some of the best kitsch* value in American culture today.  We constantly use words like chutzpah and schlep; I would like to have some solid grammatical footing under me the next time I call some one a  schmuck.  That’s it.  That’s all.

Student’s have given me a good list as well – Navajo, Okinawan, Thai, Tagalog, Swahili, Etruscian, etc. etc.  All for their own reasons, all as awkward as my own.

Care to add any to the list?


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Yo' Mama

I just spent my evening translating “yo mama” jokes into Japanese.  Go ahead and take a second or two to wrap your little mind around that.

Can’t quite do it, can you? No, me neither.

It’s a strange little life but I do enjoy it at times.

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Last Kyoto Notes

Saturday night, heading back to our hotel from the Gion area, the cab driver took us to the wrong hotel. We had piled into the cab and I spoke to the cab driver in Japanese, telling him the name of our hotel. He leaned over and yelled that there were two hotels in front of the station and which one did I mean. I told him I was sorry and that I wasn’t sure, just to go to the closest and I’d tell him if that was it.

His response was to yell again that there were two hotels with that name in front of the station and was it the big one or the little one. I said that I thought it was the little one, but I knew that it had the words “APA Hotel Kyoto Eki Mae” (APA Hotel, Kyoto, in front of the Station) written on the building. He spoke very angrily telling me that there were no hotels with that written on the building. I said fine, just take us to the closest hotel.

He said no, I’m going to take you to your hotel.

At this point I was getting more than a little irritated but did not really want to argue with the man driving the taxi, and not driving it all that well. I just made a mental resolution to let him get us to any hotel and to either walk or ask the hotel staff for a different taxi once inside.

So the driver took us to the wrong hotel, which, as it turns out, was only a block from our hotel and we were able to walk it easily.

I made a point of checking with the hotel staff to make sure I had read the sign correctly and that the building did, indeed, say Eki Mae.

It did.

The whole experience left a bad taste in my mouth, but I went for a short walk and put it out of my mind. The next day, we decided to add another day to our stay, so I went to talk to the hotel staff and ask if we could keep the same rooms, etc. And I did it all in Japanese.

Mid-way through my conversation with the desk clerk, another couple politely interrupted with a quick question and the clerk, a nice looking girl in her mid-twenties, answered in flawless English. I was a bit taken aback, so I asked her if all the staff at the hotel spoke English. She told me that they were required to be able to in order to get the job. We talked for a few more minutes and I asked her why she had kept speaking to me in Japanese when she spoke English so well, not that I minded.

She replied that I seemed to speak Japanese well and, well, yeah.

Later that night, I was having problems with the T.V. in my room. I couldn’t get the movie card to work. (I wanted to watch “Hitch” you pervert.) So I asked the hotel staff for help and they talked me through it. All in Japanese. Which lead to another compliment from the staff about my skills.

All of which made me feel much better about the asshole taxi driver and how the communication problem was obviously his, in either language.

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Tourist Talk

Kyoto is a beautiful city. There are hundreds, literally, of shrines, temples, gardens, and historic places to visit. There are also some fantastic restaurants and shops tucked into the back alleys and side streets. I have now visited Kyoto four times and noticed some changes that I thought were quite interesting. For starters, the last time I went, nearly four years ago, nobody spoke English.

Alright, yes, I’m generalizing but, at that time, I had to rely on my very limited Japanese skills to get us around via taxi and bus, not to mention getting hotel rooms, train tickets, meals, etc. etc. This time, however, I rarely had to speak Japanese. Especially in the tourist areas – the station, the hotel, restaurants near the hotel, taxis to the hotel from the temples, people could, and did, speak English. They did not always speak the language well, but the did speak passably enough that people could communicate their intents and wants easily.

Equally interesting was that the signs at the temples and shrines either had been, or are being, re-done too. During my last visit, some of the English signs were so poorly written as to be unreadable, but there were several new signs this time that were written in perfect English.

I’m curious as to how and why this happened. How, in the space of just a few years, the complete tourist experience has been anglicized. I can guess that the recent demand by the federal government that tourism be increased helped, as did the international Expo in nearby Aichi, but I am still a bit shocked at how complete the change was in such a short time.

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