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ON THE LIMITATION OF WORDS

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and  theWord was God.”       – John 1:1

Well…yes and no.

If, by this the author means that from the perspective of the world at the instant of its creation, there could be no way of knowing anything which came before in time or outside in space, there could only be the sound of the Word spoken by God; and since the Word and God were equally unknown and unknowable, the Word was, for all intents and purposes, God — in that sense, the verse seems valid enough.

But if he author is suggesting that in some objective way a word and the utterer of that word can come into existence simultaneously, that, of course, is not possible.  The utterer must exist before the word uttered.  I’m not talking in any theological sense  here, and let us leave out all the logistic nonsense of an utterer having to exist before the word he utters in order to learn the language enabling him to utter a word. No, I mean that in its most basic linguistic sense, a word needs to be formulated which requires a pre-existent formulator.

For those not already lulled into slumber:  a word, by its nature, is not the thing itself; it is a representation, a symbol, a metaphor.  I say “tree.” The sound of these phonemes attached one to the next is not a tree.  To those who speak the language, the sounds I have made represent the physical object of a tree.  The same, of course, is true of the written word.  It is only interesting to note that in some writing systems, the representation of a tree might actually have a pictorial resemblance to a physical tree. That might be one step closer to the reality of a tree, but it is still only a representations. The power of words, written or spoken, is that they give us the ability to share information and even ideas without needing the physical presence of each object or concept we wish to reference.

The Word, then, cannot be God.  If God says, “Let there be light,” and there is light, the word “light” must be a creation to represent whatever God means by “light”, and so God must pre-exist the Word — an approach more in keeping with the Old Testament: “In the beginning, God created . . . ”

Theologians and occasional scientists of various disciplines have looked upon the human capacity for speech as a sign of the qualitative advancement of human beings over earlier animals.  We can communicate symbolically and therefore even abstractly, an ability which separates us from all other life forms.  This idea is nowhere better expressed in Gensis 2:19

  • And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

It is man’s ability formulate words, to develop representative speech, which makes him the height of creation.  The Creator, Himself, brings the animals to Man for Man to describe them, to define them in words.

But for all of this, communication by word is a strange idea, a hard idea to understand. True, it is all we have ever had, and we would have difficulty postulating another way, but if we think of the limitations, we might well wonder how, exactly, we are supposed to use this system with any accuracy.

For one thing, we never quite understand each other.  Approximation is as close as we get.  The tree I grew up seeing out of my back yard in upstate New York is not the same tree you saw in Montana is not the same tree someone else saw in Tahiti is not the tree that grew in Brooklyn.  I say “tree,” and we all understand that it is not, say, a shrub or a deck of cards, but the majesty that the word brings up in the minds of those who see California Redwoods is not at all the majesty of the Japanese Bonsai. We agree in some relative manner on “tree”, but there is nothing like 100% congruence of understanding in even so concrete an idea.

The classic example is a “sunrise” viewed by an atheist and a religious mystic.  They use the same word; they share a general concept; but the experience of the atheist is of planetary motion, Newtonian physics and astronomical charts. The experience of the mystic is of majesty, mystery and the Hand of God.

No wonder we talk at cross purposes virtually always.  No wonder we seem to struggle to make sense of the simplest thoughts and ideas, communicated  to us in the simplest of speech. We talk the same language, but the nuance of symbol and emotional resonance is so subjective as to frustrate all but the most blatant and obvious of communicated symbols and references.

And because of all of this, as someone once said: “It is not everything that cannot be put into words. Only the important things.”

(I have known that line for forty years, but I cannot find its source.  If anyone actually reads this and knows the source, I would be grateful to find it out.) 

The things that matter most, the ideas that are so special, so personal, so subjective that they feel to us like a part of who we really are, are the things for which words are the most inadequate, the most coarse and unwieldy.  Has it not ever broken your heart that what you want to say is locked so deeply inside you, so absolutely incommunicable, and the moment passes that you know should have been, but will probably never come again?

So the Word is not God.  The word is, in fact, not even Man.  It is simultaneously opportunity and obstacle, our superiority over all other creatures and a symbol of our own inadequacy to become even most nominally what we know we might be.

copyright 2012  G.M. Levine

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SAVE “ME”

Using language accurately does matter to me, and that may well be enough to inch me, in the view of some, out of the “colloquial” and into the “formal” users of language; and that, even I must admit, in our time may nudge me very close, if not over, the “snob” line.

Yet, I have no interest in reviving Shakespearean English. I accept that, inevitably, language rules are going to follow usage and not usage, rules. I know that “I’m like” and “whatever” used as general placeholder for more precise words and phrases is where some dialects of English may well be going and that such usage no doubt has its own rhythm and cadence and even subtlety, even though all of that may be lost on my old ears.

I have accepted changes born of political correctness even though they conflict with the usage rules of my youth. Even though, for instance, I know that everyone and someone are singular pronouns, I accept that they now take the plural predicate possessive. Everyone must do their work. Someone is eating their lunch in the park. We sparred about this problem for fifteen or twenty years. The standard had been: Everyone must do his work. Someone is eating his lunch. This usage became insulting to women who saw it, not without reason, as part of the unthinking dismissal of the place of women in society. We tried “his/her,” but it looked unwieldy and, even more problematic, when read out loud, “his slash her” sounded like a sex crime. Some authors tried using “his” in one chapter and “her” in the next, but the very attempt at this kind of forced balance seemed, itself, to be insensitive. In the end, “everyone does their” seemed only mildly illiterate and therefore more natural, and it is now accepted usage.

And I can live with it. What I cannot live with is the use of “I” as an object. I use the grammatical term here which will seem obscure, yes and snobbish to some, but I want only to state the problem accurately. In essence, everyone who speaks English knows what I am referring to instinctively even without the grammatical jargon. I say: Give it to me, and not: Give it to I. A very brief grammatical explanation of this rule: Pronouns come in subjective and objective forms. Subjective means we use it as the subject of a verb or phrase – the one who does the action. Objective means we use it as the object of a verb or preposition – the one who receives the action or direction. That’s all of it. “He” does. “Him” does not do. I walk with “them.” I do not walk with “they.” Here is the simple list:

subject

object

I

me

you

you

he

him

she

her

we

us

you

you

they

them

dumb-blondeIn the early fifties, the spoof of the brainless blond starlet was someone trying and failing to imitate a cultured accent and saying, “a girl like I.” In the context of that phrase, “like” is a preposition, like “at” or “to” and takes an objective pronoun: “at him”, “to them”, “like me.” The joke (- yes, I know that it is a terrible thing to try to explain a joke -) was the dumb blond trying to act smart by using the “polite” pronoun, I, when it was the wrong pronoun to use. Why is “I” the polite pronoun? Assumedly, all well-brought-up children are corrected when they say something like “Me and Billy went to the park.” “That’s ‘Billy and I went to the park,”” they are told. I is the polite pronoun.

And, as we have now noted, I is sometimes the incorrect pronoun. “Give it to I” is wrong. The pronoun here is the object of the preposition “to” and needs to be written is the objective case: me. Give it to me. But we all know that too. Where that has all gone horribly wrong is when there are two nouns or pronouns used as a subject or an object. Back to “Billy and me” at the park. Even the little kid, assuming he/she/they/it/them is older than two or so, would not say, “Me go to the park.” The child has picked up enough language skill to say, “I go to the park.” It is only when the second subject, “Billy,” joins the outing that we get the slippage into the objective case: “me and Billy.” I do not know why that happens, but it has happened as long as I have been around, and, children, I have been around for a long time. And so we must train the child: “Billy and I go to the park.”

Sometime in the last twenty or thirty years – I assume that the passion for political correctness gets into the mix here somehow – the concern with supposed politeness has come to trump grammatical correctness. “You can’t pull the wool over the eyes of Felix and I.” If you were to take Felix out of the wool pull, it would be clear to everyone who managed to make their way through third grade – even on the second try – that “You can’t pull the wool over the eyes of I” is incorrectly phrased. “Of” is a preposition; the object of the preposition must be phrased in the objective; and, of course, “the eyes of I” just sounds stupid. And if it is “the eyes of me,” then it is “the eyes of Felix and me” or “Felix and Barton and Aristophanes and Melvin and me.”

This blatant misuse is everywhere. It is now common in both formal and informal conversation. It is common in newspapers. There is virtually no newscaster on any network who does not use “of Felix and I” or its equivalent as standard speech. A week or two ago, I watched a TV show with a Sherlock Holmes character presented as the snob of snobs, the symbol of the insufferably literate and educated; and in this show, Mr. Know-it-all declared his superior knowledge by stating that “it was clear to Watson and I…”

If all this had been developing as part of the growth of actual courtesy or politeness (although I will admit to you that I can see no reason why the sound of I is in any way more inherently polite than the sound of me), I guess I could have learned to live with it. But it is not based on the striving for any societal progress. It is based on dumb. It is the institutionalization of the dead wrong. It is the triumph of stupid over the forces of logic and common sense. What comes next, of course, is the eradication of the objective case in pronouns. Oh, that’s just silly, you say. Really? Think of “thee.” Where is “thee” and “thou” and “thine” outside of the King James Version of the Bible and the works of the Elizabethans? That word form once existed as the singular pronoun for “you.” “You” was plural; “thee” was singular. If there was one of you to whom I spoke, I spoke to “thee;” if there were a bunch of you, I spoke to “you.” What happened to that pronoun? We decided to be more polite. “Thee” was a very personal pronoun; it seemed more respectful to speak to a single person in plural so as not to seem too presumptuous. “Hey baby, can I see thee later tonight?” And “thee” gradually got left behind. Do I mind that? Not practically. That all happened long before I got here, and an English language without “thee” and “thine” seems personally natural to me – as one day, an English language with sentences like, “I will tell he and she the next time I see they” may seem perfectly natural to some future generation.

And yet, I can imagine a language just a little richer, a little more precise, because I can say a more personal, “I love thee” than the plural “I love you.”  But I am forced to acknowledge that I am one of those aging people who do not so easily cope with change and who are crotchety enough that we find change based only on dumb objectionable.

And I think this one is worth a fight: no, not anything physical – I don’t do anything physical that doesn’t have a cup of coffee at the end of it – but a certain rigid, awkward inflexibility when it comes to mangling this small, simple, reasonable use of a perfectly good pronoun. Perhaps I will send a copy of this rant to the News Editors of the New York Times and CNN and that TV show about Sherlock Holmes. Old crotchety people do that sort of thing. I will certainly embarrass my family by correcting those who misuse the objective case of the pronoun. In this way, I will not make myself more beloved, but perhaps I will infect one more generation with a small, embarrassing desire to keep just one little, proper word of the English language struggling on for a few more years.

-copyright 2014 Gary M. Levine

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