You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Language might not have entirely escaped its origins. Since you can be understood even when you are not well-spoken, what is the point of being well-spoken at all? Perhaps speaking well is still, in part, a form of sexual display. By being well spoken I show not only that I am an intelligent, clued-in member of the tribe but also that I am likely to be a successful partner and helpful mate.
Jaron Lanier
You Are Not a Gadget (2010)


  1. When I worked for Banco de Bogota the first job I had was translating a technical manual written in Chinglish back into something the auditors could sign off on as a valid English document. Not that people read users manuals. There are rules about these things.

    Chinglish was completely consistent and understandable to me, even though I had no background in Mandarin Chinese, the native language of my Taiwanese software master.

    And he was a Master. Secretive, power hungry, unwilling to teach for fear a pupil would become his undoing. Which all came to pass when the new American lead management replaced all the Columbian male managment with the Columbian females who were doing all the work anyway.

    I graduated to rewriting Spainglish memos back into English as well as running disaster recovery procedures and telling the truth about something when everyone else was lying.

    It took me a while to silence that little authoritative voice in my head that told me people who didn't speak in a grammatically correct way were stupid.

    At some point I had to call my old boss and get her on speaker phone with my new boss to sort out some compliance detail. I realized that the tone of his voice was colossally rude compared to the way my southern lady boss was used to being talked to. I quickly said, "I think what Andy means to say is...".

    I had adapted to his rude New Yorker tone and forgotten the reflexive Southern politeness that hides an equally brutal social matrix.

    Perhaps the reason Darwinian Evolution is rejected by so many in the United States is that we can't come to conscious terms with our brutalist symbolic social system.

    It's significant that Richard Dawkins has recently clarified his position with regards to scientific evolutionary theory as NOT in favor of brutal Darwinist social systems. Paradoxical.

  2. While I appreciate the rationale behind this Lanier excerpt, I question his simplified premise that "you can be understood even when you are not well-spoken."

    Granted, you don't need a thesaurus at a NASCAR tailgate party. Language, much like attire and conduct, should be appropriate to a given situation.

    But even setting aside obvious examples like legal documents or medical instructions (and, yes, technical manuals), I would argue everyday social interaction requires a certain level of precision in communication - and that the majority of it has more to do with saving time and avoiding confusion than with Freudian peacockery.