“Why,” I used to ask my introductory composition classes as I held up an ordinary writing implement for their perusal, “do we who speak English call this a pen and not a frying pan?”
Panic-stricken looks appeared on the faces of two dozen first-year college students who were struggling to navigate those early days of classes, and who were now looking at each other and wondering whether there was a secret campus code that no one had bothered to inform them about.
We sat in silence until eventually someone called out, “Uh, because that’s what we were told?”
“Exactly!” I said. Two dozen students breathed sighs of relief.
But I was not finished with them. “Now suppose,” I continued, “that you are having a quiz and the instructor tells you to put away your books and take out a frying pan and some paper?”
Still unsure of what to make of the person talking to them, students gazed at the ceiling for inspiration. I prodded them a bit. “Knowing that you had to write for a quiz, would you pick up a pen regardless of the instructor’s actual words?”
A discussion ensued. Those who favored picking up the pen noted that what matters is the context — a quiz requires the use of a pen, and they’re figuring that the instructor was either absent-minded or just plain weird. On the other side, students asserted that they would ask for clarification before acting. After all, if the words don’t comport with common sense, how can a person be expected to know how to proceed?
I haven’t taught introductory composition for a while now, but I return often to the “Why is this a pen?” question when I prepare students in other classes for writing their first papers. I want them to understand that each language is a series of (often seemingly arbitrary) agreements.
And since that little incident with the Tower of Babel (a most useful metaphor!) resulted in well over 6000 languages in the world, those agreements are legion, and as varied as the geography they cover. A few examples: English nouns use only one case ending (“case” is the word used to describe the grammatical relationship of nouns and pronouns to other words in a sentence); that case is the possessive, which we make by adding an apostrophe and the letter “s” (the cat’s whiskers). Modern Greek has four, while both Hungarian and Finnish have over a dozen. English locates situations and actions in time by conjugating verbs — using verb tenses (you walk, you walked, you will walk, and so on). Mandarin Chinese has no verb tenses, and instead uses other signifiers for the timing of actions.
Nouns are gendered in many language but not in English. The gendering of nouns seems particularly arbitrary to English speakers. (While “pen” and “frying pan” are feminine nouns in both French and Spanish, for instance, “pencil” and “bowl” are masculine nouns in those language. Go figure!) English has only one commonly-recognized tone that serves as a grammatical indicator (the rising voice pitch that indicates a question), while many African and Asian languages use multiple tones for grammatical purposes.
Hearing that language is a series of arbitrary agreements sometimes briefly lulls students into thinking that I won’t be too hard on the grammar, structure, spelling, and diction in their papers, and will instead correct and grade only for “meaning.”
They are disabused of that notion the moment their first papers are returned to them.
The other truth about language — and what I really want to teach them — is that it is a remarkable tool. Breath from our lungs, shaped by our teeth and tongues, can delight or infuriate, engender grief or joy, obfuscate or clarify. Squiggles on pages can open us to understanding lives lived thousand of miles away, or hundreds of years ago.
Like any tool, language can be used with varying degrees of competence. In some people’s hands, it can re-order the world.
Understanding the philosophical concept of language as an arbitrary series of agreements does not relieve us of the obligation of knowing and applying those agreements in the languages we use, particularly when we write. Speech allows us to communicate meaning with gestures, facial expressions, voice tone and volume, movement, moments of silence. As a professional writer myself, I am acutely aware that, on the page or the screen, our ideas are conveyed only in the words, and the grammatical structures that contain them.
I caution my students about all of this. “Remember,” I tell them, “that, in your writing, I can understand and evaluate what you are saying only by the words you choose, and the order you put them in.”
Volumes have been written about what makes good writing, and outlining yet another set of rules is not my purpose here. Rather, I leave you with this insight from Mark Twain: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
© Rhea Hirshman 2015