Lost in Translation

A couple of years ago, I encountered a middle-school-aged kid who was listening to Sweet Child O’ Mine, a song with arguably one of the best guitar lines of all time. The song is inexplicably beautiful to me, a rough but poignant emotional tribute. I was so impressed that this kid knew this music. After all, we know how I feel about most of the music that you hear on popular stations these days, if you’re ever unfortunate enough to listen to such things. Here was someone, barely a teenager, who appreciated good music, music with poetry.

Then I found out how he knew it. It’s apparently attached to a video game called Guitar Hero. He knew nothing else of it besides that.
Karen and I were talking a couple of days ago about generational changes in references. This was actually part of her master’s thesis, so I’m borrowing from her, here. Phrases used today by fresh college grads, for example, mean completely different things than they would have to me. Similarly, phrases used that carry a contextual meaning to a person of a particular subculture won’t carry that meaning to someone outside of that subculture. And, these sorts of things morph over time.

Take a yellow ribbon, for example. At one point, it was a popular symbol of remembrance for loved ones who were at war.  Before being drafted into a memorial of battle (a fate befalling many symbols in our country), however, it was simply known in a song about a prisoner returning home to find he was still loved. In other times, both pre-dating and post-dating that particular song, it’s become a symbol for…well, you can almost insert your cause here. It’s been granted theological significance, military significance, symbolism of popular causes. That yellow ribbon has certainly made it’s rounds in our culture.

The lover of language in me wrestles with this, because I have a knee-jerk reaction against re-contextualizing things. Of course, it takes me about two seconds to realize that this is ridiculous, that everything is re-contexutalized, and that this is how language continues to dynamically meet the needs of those by whom it is spoken and written. The curious thing about these sorts of metamorphoses is that they tend to leave behind their bits of history. The roots of linguistic bits and pieces that slip so naturally from our tongues is sort of a specialized interest, studied seriously by only a niche of academics and occasionally pursued by geeks such as myself. My problem, I guess, is that, just like that kid listening to one of the greatest rock songs of all time and not even recognizing where it came from, we use expressions without understanding their significance and how they came to be.

I think it’s important to embrace the (respectful) evolutions of language and cultural symbols, because they allow us to communicate on a much higher level than we otherwise would. I also think that it’s important to remember the history of how we arrived at where we are, because a good deal of the power in our language is it’s history. Like us, it stands on the shoulders of what came before it, and is nothing without it’s past. Our language is so, so much more than empty words and phrases (even though it’s often carelessly used as such), and keeping in touch with where it came from is how we maintain our stewardship of it’s strength.

…Thought Control? No Thanks….

When I was freshman in college, I worked as a DJ for the campus radio station. The experience was invaluable. The real perk , however, even though I worked every weekend, was that, while all of my freshmen friends got the dining hall as their work study, I got to spin tunes (yes, I know how dated that sounds, but seriously…there were turntables and vinyl in that radio station).

One afternoon, the CD machine broke (that was new technology at the time), and we had to figure out a way to keep the dead air at bay. So, one of my co-workers put on a Pink Floyd album and we were covered for some time.

Pink Floyd is a classic piece of our musical heritage, we can’t deny that. I’m going to come out and say, though, that, despite their technical skill, I’ve never been a huge fan of their music. I think it’s more because their sound just doesn’t click with me, but…I digress.  I still respect them artists. The song that’s always been most prominent in my noggin when I think of Pink Floyd is Another Brick in the Wall, and one line in particular:

“We don’t need no education…”

The writer in me cringes and weeps in the corner.

I listened to a great discussion on NPR last week…and, of course, I can’t find the audio anywhere now…about artistic license for musical artists. Basically, when do we let artists get by with such atrocious grammar, and when do we not? Of course, Pink Floyd is saying something with their poor grammar…like a good poet, their meta-message is augmented by their sentence structure. And rock n’ roll, lest we forget, is an art form with its roots in rebellion against the status quo. The posture, the hair, the distorted sound and guitars in overdrive…these are all pushing back on something. Back when music had poetry in its lyrics, the language worked to convey that message, carrying with it hints for which the listener had to work to find the meaning. In short, when the grammar was bad, it was generally bad for a reason.

Now, in the interest of being objective, I’m about to sound un-objective, as you might have guessed when I said “back when music had poetry.” You can imagine, then, that I don’t hold any particular love for a great deal of modern music. The teacher being interviewed in that NPR article talks about role modeling proper grammar in music for students in the impressionable time period between high school and middle school. She was concerned about artists such as Justin Bieber and Shakira using poor grammar and hearing her students repeat it, because music is such a powerful memory aid.

Yet, so much of the music to which I listened as a child had incorrect grammar, and I turned out just fine.

Rebellion in popular music certainly hasn’t changed…there’s a lot of machine to rage against out there, and a lot of rage with which to do so. That sort of expression is one of the most important things that rock music gives us, I think. Where does artistic license begin, though, in regards to grammar in the lyrics?

I propose an answer, and that answer is at the end of ignorance. When an artist (any artist…this is apropos for the poet as well as the musician) knows a rule and then breaks it for intentional effect, that is artistic license. Beethoven wrote much of his music by breaking the rules that contemporaries such as Mozart valued so highly, and we are without a doubt richer for it.

I can’t help but think, though…and if this sounds judgmental, I’d encourage you to look at statistics…that most poor grammar in the modern music industry is the result of being uneducated.  That is, the grammar errors aren’t made for effect, they’re made out of ignorance. These kids are just looking for something that rhymes.

When artists break societal norms out of ignorance instead of with intentional purpose, then they’re not making art…they’re making excuses. I can look back on Pink Floyd’s anthem and recognize what they’re saying, and their grammar choices lead me to that. Many modern artists don’t use their grammar choices to say anything, but rather boost their popularity by using trendy expressions. The poetry, my friends, appears to be dying.

And certainly it is preceded in death by lyrics than meant anything of substance, anyway. That, though, is a topic for another day.

The Beauty of Uncommon Words

I think that the crass language we hear so often today is simply a matter of an underdeveloped vocabulary. Choosing four-letter expletives as recourse to express our frustration with something is too easy, and too abrasive. There are many, less common words that adequately communicate our frustration, while keeping a comic element to alleviate the situation and help us to laugh at ourselves. 

Think of “nincompoop.” Or “dunderpate.” Try tossing those out the next time you’re completely maddened by the actions of the car in front of you during your morning commute. 

There. Now didn’t that feel better? 

Whispers of Flexibility

The thought occurred to me today that sometimes I climb up onto this soapbox about how the English language is dying, languishing in neglect at the whim of a popular new SMS-speak, until finally it will expire from malnutrition and few will remember it, and be laughed at for doing so. I climb onto this soapbox with the best of intentions: like kitsch over-taking good art, I cringe when I hear careless slang based upon intentional misuse of the language or text-language spelling intruding into situations that call for formal English (such as ending a sentence with “lol” in a term paper).

In fact, I think ending any sentence in “lol” should be a legally punishable offense. Before I digeress, however…

I briefly grabbed this thought as it flew by me today that one of the reasons I’m so hard on these alterations to our language is because I’m a writer. As a musician relies on notes, a photographer on images and light, a painter on line and form, I rely on words to tell the story that I’m attempting to convey. I believe words should be handled lovingly, manipulated with care. I suspect that there are times in which they manipulate us. I don’t think language…any language…should be mis-handled carelessly, or with crass intention.

What occurs to me, though, is that handling language carefully isn’t confined to the written word. Written communication post-dates language, after all. Language, in all of its beauty, existed before it was recorded in written form. And, of course, oral tradition and the spoken word are rapidly and regularly evolving, proof that language is dynamic and alive, not merely static and existing, just as we are. As such, perhaps I should expect the easy evolution of the written form of our language, and perhaps I should condone this as a natural part of its life. We can’t, after all, stop a child from growing into their own person, even if we strongly dislike the person that they are becoming.

Still, though, there is a part of me that wants to discourage this, to wonder if the growth is occurring without proper supervision. I think that evolution can easily slide into devolution, and that words have power. When we treat them with respect and care, they can heal. When we toss them about casually and without due consideration, they cause anger and lead to war. This potential exists even more in the spoken form, as we tend to not think through what we are saying as carefully before we say it, as we would if we were to write it, instead.

Of course, when I get to that point in my thought, I’m thinking that I’m not being too hard on the way our language is used, after all.

What do you think? Is language suffering for the sake of expediency and due to a lack of respect? Am I being too cranky about this? The comment chain awaits…

Abbreviating Ourselves to Death

I remember my first graduate course. Specifically, I remember looking though the pages and pages of the syllabus until I reached the term paper assignment. I think most former grad students remember that moment. It’s traumatic, after all. My eyes grew wide and my complexion grew pale as I familiarized myself with the requirements of that one assignment, one of many. I remember well the sentence on the syllabus that said  “…qualities valued will include brevity…” How exactly does one achieve brevity in a paper that size? The point was that the professor wouldn’t tolerate any padding or fluff. Every idea and point of that paper had to stand on its own, and there had to be enough of them to make the work cohesive.

Well, I passed. Ever since, though, the word “brevity” has been etched into my brain. It sprang to mind again when I read this op-ed piece over the weekend, in which the writer argues for using shorter (much shorter) writing assignments for his undergraduate English students. He uses the word “concise” instead of “brevity,” but he’s arguing for something similar to my first semester grad school professor. Cut the cliche, cut the filler, and give the facts. Only important material should be in the paper. After all, the writer argues, we live in a culture that values the ability to succinctly communicate your thoughts in a few words. We don’t have time for essays in our day to day lives.

My fellow blogger Jan over at The View From Her asked this week if anyone else was growing “bored with the whole blog thing,” pondering if ideas weren’t communicated that way any more, or at least that most of us didn’t have the energy to say them in that format. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard the question asked. Is blogging dying? Certainly the blogosphere looks different, and is arguably less active, in our current culture of frequent status updates and 140-character sound bytes. Remember when Facebook wasn’t a real-time stream, but a place to communicate with your friends (before it attempted to copy Twitter)? Many have left blogging behind, preferring the quicker stream-of-consciousness that is the status update world. Quick and concise thoughts, without the elaboration.

I’m concerned by this. My initial reaction is that blogging is too valuable a medium to let die, both as a snapshot of the thoughts of the masses and as a game-changer for journalism. Sure, there are bloggers who just write about what they did that day and ate for dinner, the same as there are vloggers that waste YouTube’s bandwidth talking about their haircut. Those, I think, have gravitated much more easily to shorter mediums. There are many, though, who have something to say, something that requires more words to effectively communicate their thoughts.

We’ve all read books and reached the last page groaning about the verbose writing of the author…you know, the writers who take pages of non-fiction space to say what we could have said completely in three paragraphs? That’s one thing. And as much as I love the idea of every thought standing on its own merit, there has to be room for the complete thoughts, as well. I’ve heard it said that, in prose writing, every thought must stand on its own, while in poetry, every word must stand on its own.

Perhaps, if we were moving more toward the poetry, I could more easily accept the idea. Even if we were, though, embracing poetry doesn’t eliminate the need for prose. And, at the end of the day, we’re not embracing any sort of increasing literacy…a fact that is glaring us in the face every time someone uses “2” instead of “to” or “lol” in a tweet (those abbreviations barely even have a place in text messages in an age when many phones have full keyboards).  Not everything can be abbreviated effectively, and doing so not only robs the idea of some of its coherence, but works toward the degradation of the language in which the thought is being expressed.

I think of my professional life as an example. I don’t look good on paper, at least not when I’m reduced to a few succinct sentences. Given a seven page CV, I shine, but on a one page resume, not as much. There’s more nuance, more complexity, to anyone’s life than that. Should I find myself applying for a specific position that requires a specific skill set, then that can certainly be achieved in one page. There is much, though, that must be left out, and those things that are left out are important.

Perhaps the issue is that we’re too rushed and impatient to read the depth of anyone’s thoughts. Perhaps the issue is that we’ve forsaken depth in favor of fast-moving trends. Perhaps the issue is that we’re permanently re-wired. Certainly, all of those things are true. Whatever the case, I see the larger issue being the impatience and unwillingness, leading not only to a failure to express our thoughts at length, but also to a failure to entertain others’ thoughts at length. There’s probably something to be said for the narcissism of always wanting to be heard, as well.

Expressing something in its entirety does not mean expressing it verbosely.

Expressing something while valuing brevity does not mean reducing it to a rapid-fire tweets, either.

Should blogging actually be dying, then I think its death is a statement that we aren’t wise enough to recognize the difference.

Photo Attribution: ilovebutter