09/29/13

Why Spelling Matters


Bad spellingSometimes I despair when I surf through the social media. Technology has empowered everyone to be able to comment, to post their stories, to share their opinion. Yet it has not enabled their ability to compose a sentence, or to spell the words correctly. It has not made us better grammarians, better spellers.

And in my despair, I’m not alone. Others take exception to the general dumbing down and its accelerating spread online.

It’s not just the easily-confused homophones like they’re, their and there, board and bored, your and you’re. What’s heartbreaking about those mistakes is that the differences are simple, easy to understand, and taught at at early age. How do people forget them so easily when they get older and more educated?

And not simply the rather common typos of dropped or accidental letters. You can’t always blame the results of a flaky keyboard on the writer, and few of us have been educated as touch typists or stenographers, so our skills may be lacking. And of course we have to be tolerant of the millions for whom English is not their native tongue, and laud rather than criticize their efforts.

Because I often stump about on the keyboard and hit errant keys while typing or don’t press a key hard enough to register, I can understand how too becomes to, care becomes car, waiter becomes water, quiote becomes quite (and sometimes vice versa).

But  tre for tree? Mony for money? Hosue for house?

We all have spellcheck in pretty much every app, which, if not perfect, at least identifies most common problems. They show up as little angry red underscores as I write this piece; hard to avoid. I must resist the temptation to obey them and correct my examples.

Are we not bright enough to use this ubiquitous technology? Is the problem that we are technologically illiterate? No.

I’ve read these examples from Facebook on one site:

“take it for granite” instead of granted, petafile for pedophine, raping for wrapping, prosentation for presentation, perthetic for pathetic, conceded for conceited, then for than (and vice versa – very common mistake), majic for magic, grammer for grammar, commen for common, loose for loose, forchen for fortune, mourning for morning, preasure for pressure, pea for pee, affense for offence, dose for does, rite for write, colladge for college, homosidal for homicidal, sense for cents, hungary for hungry, intelligense for intelligence, witch for which, waist for waste, wounder for wonder, sewing for suing, logged for lodged, speel for spell, boarders for borders, died for dyed, rite for right, past for passed, beet for beat, go’s for goes, Labia for Libya, colon for cologne…”

Many of which make for humorous reading, but poor communication. Plus…

retarted, inforcing, teecher, recponcibility, sementary, peppol, exhaugstion, decisons, tomarrow, gardian, unfare, unniversity, ludacris, litarecy, commet, tipe, cought, frusterated, driveing, rideing, teecher, blak, tares, beutiful, asain, spint, huunnies, gratest, huray … and then plurals written as possessives – truth’s for truths, musician’s for musicians, or misplaced apostrophes like your’s, and so on…

The list seems endless.

What’s most annoying is that so many of these errors are easily caught by spellcheckers – technology on every device and available for or integral to every browser – that the posters routinely ignore or refuse to acknowledge. But perhaps even if a word is identified by the spell-checker as incorrect, the poster doesn’t know the correct form, and rather than search for it, ignores the warning.

Stopping to proofread, stopping to correct takes too much time and thought in an era of snap judgments and immediate, off-the-cuff answers. It’s a self-inflicted wound.

Where is the pride we used to take in being able to spell, to write well? Have we lost our literary self respect?

Continue reading

09/18/13

Should Latin Return to Ontario Schools?


Teaching LatinWhen I was a young lad, all I ever wanted to be was a paleontologist. Dinosaurs were the most important thing in my life until around age 14 or 15. That’s when I barely scraped through my high-school Latin course. After that, my interests shifted to other, more attainable career goals.

Basic Latin was, at least back then, required for a career in paleontology. Greek, too*. My ability to learn languages was, as a young teenager, not up to the mark. I barely passed Latin, probably given a pass by a teacher who felt sorry for my linguistic disability (and didn’t want to suffer me through a remedial summer class).

Which is odd, given that today Latin fascinates me and I delight in reading about it and its etymological influence in our language.  I often spend time online looking for Latin phrases or translations. I happily struggled with some phrases from Livy when researching my book on Machiavelli.

But back in high school, it was more a drudgery than a delight.

According to a 2010 story in the Toronto Star, Latin was mandatory in Ontario high schools until 1968. It started falling off curricula after that.

For centuries, Latin and ancient Greek were staples of general education, and working knowledge of authors like Cicero and Virgil was required for university admission. Latin was mandatory in Ontario’s high schools until 1968.
But since 1994, the number of Ontario schools offering Latin has fallen to 60 from 159 — a 62 per cent drop. Classical educators face a battery of pressures: tight student timetables, teacher shortages, and underlying it all, the perennial accusations of irrelevance and Eurocentrism.

Irrelevance? Latin has a firm grip on the English language, a millennium-and-a-half after the Roman Empire collapsed. As Wikipedia notes:

…a significant portion of the English vocabulary comes from Romance and Latinate sources. Estimates of native words (derived from Old English) range from 20%–33%, with the rest made up of outside borrowings. A portion of these borrowings come directly from Latin, or through one of the Romance languages, particularly Anglo-Norman and French, but some also from Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish; or from other languages (such as Gothic, Frankish or Greek) into Latin and then into English. The influence of Latin in English, therefore, is primarily lexical in nature, being confined mainly to words derived from Latin roots.

Many neologoisms are based in Latin – especially the “classical compounds,” although the word neologism is actually from the Greek (neo-new, logos-word). But that’s just a reinforced argument for teaching at least rudimentary Greek as well.

The Star story goes on to say,

One American study showed that students who learn Latin in high school have average GPA scores of 2.89 in university compared to 2.38 for those who didn’t study any language and 2.80 for those who studied a modern language. Latin students also consistently out-perform on the SAT.

Because SAT scores are paramount for admission at American colleges, in the U.S. “they can’t get enough Latin teachers,” according to Margaret-Anne Gillis, a board member of the Ontario Classical Association and Latin teacher at Barrie Central Collegiate. Two teachers she helped train had their green cards expedited.

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07/12/13

Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde


Troilus and CressidaAfter reading the play by Shakespeare last week, I decided to tackle Chaucer’s epic 8,000-line poem about the Trojan lovers, Troilus and Cressida (or Criseyde as Chaucer writes it). It’s a long, somewhat meandering piece that begins, in the Online Medieval Classical Library version:

The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,
That was the king Priamus sone of Troye,
In lovinge, how his aventures fellen
Fro wo to wele, and after out of Ioye,
My purpos is, er that I parte fro ye.
Thesiphone, thou help me for tendyte
Thise woful vers, that wepen as I wryte!

To thee clepe I, thou goddesse of torment,
Thou cruel Furie, sorwing ever in peyne;
Help me, that am the sorwful instrument
That helpeth lovers, as I can, to pleyne!
For wel sit it, the sothe for to seyne,
A woful wight to han a drery fere,
And, to a sorwful tale, a sory chere.

Okay, that’s the Middle English original. Not everyone’s cup of tea. But don’t give up yet. Read it aloud. Slowly. Pronounce each vowel as you would in Spanish or Italian. Sorwe becomes sor-weh. Parte is par-teh. You will at least hear, and perhaps feel, the rhythm in his words, the rhyming scheme.

You can hear how Chaucer would have pronounced his words on the Harvard Chaucer site. Or listen to parts of or the entire poem at Librivox.

You can also take several online courses in Chaucer that will help teach his language and style, like this one at Harvard U. The site also offers a handy interlinear translation of several fragments (although not complete poems) where the Middle English line is followed by a modern version. I have a paperback edition of the Canterbury Tales like that and it’s very helpful and quite readable.

Here’s the same two initial verses translated by Kline:

Troilus’s double sorrow for to tell,
he that was son of Priam King of Troy,
and how, in loving, his adventures fell
from grief to good, and after out of joy,
my purpose is, before I make envoy.
Tisiphone, do you help me, so I might
pen these sad lines, that weep now as I write.

I call on you, goddess who does torment,
you cruel Fury, sorrowing ever in pain:
help me, who am the sorrowful instrument
who (as I can) help lovers to complain.
Since it is fitting, and truth I maintain,
for a dreary mate a woeful soul to grace,
and for a sorrowful tale a sorry face.

Somewhat easier to understand, don’t you think? Continue reading

06/22/13

Not All Words Are Equal, or Used Equally


Dilbert
There’s an economic principle known as the rule of fungibility that states a commodity is equivalent to other units of the same commodity. For example, a litre of gasoline is the same commodity regardless of the brand or source. A bushel of wheat is the same regardless of the country. Ten dollars is ten dollars whether presented as a single bill or in smaller denominations. These are fungible items.

But fungibility doesn’t apply to language. Words do not have an absolute base value, but are rather weighed in their context, and their source. A street thug telling his pack followers to “Kill the bum” is very different from a sports fan shouting the same thing at an empire during a baseball game. Context is everything.

If a neighbour comments, “Taxes in this town are too high. They are killing jobs, hurting homeowners and bankrupting businesses,” it’s a complaint. A fairly common one from a taxpayer. One person bitching to another is lightweight, regardless of the truth of that complaint.

Put it in a letter to the editor, and it gains weight because others read it and may start discussing it. It gains traction.

Put it on social media and you can engage people in discussions immediately and share the comment with people outside your own borders, creating an image of the town for outsiders: don’t move there, don’t start a business there, because taxes are too high. There’s no work there.

It can quickly become damaging to to whole community.

If the media says it in an editorial, it’s bulks up. Even though the media does not necessarily represent any more voices than the editor’s sole view, media still has a patina of authority for most readers.*

And when that editorial gets put online, like the social media comment, it not only spreads the idea, but it helps build – or deteriorate – the community’s reputation for outsiders.**

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03/27/13

Enter Christopher Marlowe – Again


Back in the late 1990s, I wrote an essay about the “controversy” over who actually wrote the works of Shakespeare. I wrote, then,

Not everyone agrees that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. The challenge to his authorship isn’t new: for the last three centuries it’s been the most popular whodunit of literature: trying to uncover the true identity of the author of the world’s greatest dramas and comedies. I can’t think of another author of note in the world who is considered not to have written the works under which his or her name is penned. Even Shakespeare’s many contemporaries are considered the author of the works under their names – Jonson, Marlowe, Fletcher, for example. But not Bill the Bard.

I don’t think of it as a controversy as much as a conspiracy theory, since, like UFOs and chemtrails, it doesn’t get any significant traction in academia. The dating of a particular play, or even if it belongs in the canon, may be controversial, but not conspiratorial.

However, it’s one of the oldest conspiracy theories, at least in the literary world (Atlantis, the Noachian flood, and Freemasonry may be older, but not literary). And I have to admit to still enjoying reading about it. This old conspiracy still has legs. Plus, it has generated serious, intellectual and scholarly debate for centuries.* It’s even become a meme, thanks to the internet.

History PlayA couple of years ago, in my endless search for books on the Bard, I picked up History Play, by Rodney Bolt (Perennial, New York, USA, 2005). I only started to read it last week. Bolt revives an old idea: that Christopher Marlowe, contemporary playwright, was the actual author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.

Like that of the contemporary favourite among literary conspiracy theorists, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, Marlowe’s life presents a significant challenge to explain in terms of the theory: Marlowe was murdered in 1593.

That’s twenty years before the last known works by Shakespeare were penned (Henry VIII, and Two Noble Kinsmen). de Vere, at least, died in 1604, more than a decade after Marlowe, so his supporters have a shorter time to cover.

The “solutions” for this rather uncomfortable historical fact are either that the person in question didn’t really die, but rather went into hiding and continued to write, or that he (or she in the case of those who attribute the plays to Elizabeth I) wrote them all before, and they were released sporadically after that death.

For Marlowe, it was even more inconvenient to “die” at age 29. Considering he was in university until 1587, that doesn’t leave a lot of time to write the 36-plus plays and numerous poems attributed to Shakespeare. Unless, of course, we was really alive all this time, as Bolt suggests.

Bolt overcomes this significant problem in grand fashion: Marlowe faked his own death and fled to the continent with a copy of Hollinshead’s Chronicles in his chest (Chronicles was, of course, one of Shakespeare’s prime sources). The book is full of Elizabethan spy stories – if nothing else it’s wildly entertaining.

Marlowe has been presented as the actual author of the Bard’s works since at least 1819 (this article dates it to 1895). While it’s accepted that Marlowe influenced Shakespeare, his death usually involves some rather fantastic explanation to make him stand up among the other conspirators.

The argument is generally that a “lout” like William Shakespeare had neither the education nor experience to write about such a wide range of topics as he did. Only a nobleman like de Vere and Bacon had that background. Marlowe, despite being raised in a middle-class background similar to Shakespeare’s (Marlowe\s father was a cobbler) had better tutelage and Cambridge schooling. As it says on Shakespeare-Oxford.com:***

1) It is highly unlikely that Shakespeare’s works could have been composed by the person to whom they are traditionally assigned.

2) The qualifications necessary for the true author of these works are more adequately realized in the person of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, than in the many other candidates proposed in the last two hundred years.

So how did Shakespeare’s name get put on them? The real, noble authors would lose face if they were identified as the authors, so they used a minor actor as their mouthpiece.** Wikipedia notes:

Reasons proposed for the use of “Shakespeare” as a pseudonym vary, usually depending upon the social status of the candidate. Aristocrats such as Derby and Oxford supposedly used pseudonyms because of a prevailing “stigma of print”, a social convention that putatively restricted their literary works to private and courtly audiences—as opposed to commercial endeavours—at the risk of social disgrace if violated. In the case of commoners, the reason was to avoid prosecution by the authorities: Bacon to avoid the consequences of advocating a more republican form of government, and Marlowe to avoid imprisonment or worse after faking his death and fleeing the country.

Savage ChickensThat argument, however, doesn’t hold a lot of water since many nobles in the Elizabethan era wrote plays and poems openly, including de Vere.

It all hinges on how you perceive talent and genius. There’s a certain snobbishness in believing that one needs noble birth and university degrees to have the talent to be creative and artistic. Yet every notion we have of genius says that it belongs to individuals regardless of background, upbringing and formal education.

The argument against Shakespeare as the author overlooks simple plagiarism, too. Shakespeare’s sources are well known, and it’s clear that he lifted many of his plots, characters and settings from the works of others, even some of the dialogue. His genius lay in how he assembled them into his plays.

In Shakespeare, Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom writes:

You cannot reduce Shakespeare to any single power, of all his myriad gifts, and assert that he matters most because of that one glory. yet all his endowments issue from his extraordinary intelligence, which for comprehensiveness is unmatched, and not just among the greatest writers. The true Bardolatry stems from this recognition.

Personally, I find all of the arguments against Shakespeare flimsy and contrived.  Most of the arguments in favour of alternative authors depend on a lot of circumstantial evidence,  “what-if” suppositions, and interpretations of internal “evidence” in the plays.****

The conspiracy looks for answers in the shadows and ignores those in common sight. And simply because 400-plus-year-old records are incomplete or were kept in ways different from our practices today doesn’t mean anything is wrong.

But back to Bolt. His tale is fascinating reading, and he makes it clear his belief in Marlowe’s authorship is absolute. Quotes from the plays are identified as Marlowe’s work from the first pages. Yet Bolt pulls back in his afterword and teases us by saying it is all the “purest conjecture.” Despite this, and despite the trips along what is clearly leaps of intellectual faith, what Bolt offers is entertaining and well researched, and in the end a rewarding read.

If only all conspiracy theories were so much fun to read.

~~~~~

* In his book, Contested Will, James Shapiro identifies at least 50 persons have been put forward as potential authors of the Shakespearean canon, since the notion of alternate authorship was first raised, in 1785. Wikipedia includes other dates for doubters.

** I’ve heard similar conspiracies about local blogs.

*** The site also boasts an “honor role” of skeptics who doubted Shakespeare as the author. However, simply because others believe in it, does not make it true, regardless of the perceived eminence of the skeptic. Just because some doctors smoke does not make the practice healthy or sanitary, no matter how good they are as surgeons. I cannot see any names of literary scholars or historians on the list, but there are a lot of actors.

**** I’m seldom convinced by interpretations by critics, historians and scholars that try to tell me what the author intended, thought, believed, or felt. Only the author can do that. Interpretations too often assume that what is written is not what was meant.

03/14/13

The Consolation of Literature


For Boethius, it was the Consolation of Philosophy*. For me, it’s literature. Not to write about it so much as to read it. Consolation from the act of reading.

And read about literature. Sometimes literature is made more meaningful, brought into sharper focus by analysis and deconstruction. I started reading Shakespeare’s Shakespeare: How the Plays Were Made (John C Meagher, Continuum, New York, 2000) last night. He opens by saying:

There are as many legitimate ways of reading Shakespeare’s plays as there are of having a conversation, making a meal, or rearing children.

I suppose we assign meaning to whatever we read – the Bard and everyone else – according to our circumstances and moods. I might read Othello now with a different eye than when I read it a few years ago. I might perceive Iago as a more real, more cunning and more malicious villain today than I did then. Iago – who at one point swears by Janus, the two-faced god – tells Roderigo:

For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

Announcing himself to be a deceiver. Later in Act One, Iago contemptuously says of Othello:

The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by the nose
As asses are.
I have’t. It is engender’d. Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.

Such villainy, such deception. But of course, without Iago, there would be no drama. We want drama in literature, if not always in life.

Similarly, in The Tempest, which I recently restarted, Caliban seems a darker, more monstrous figure than he did when I first opened the play. Prospero mutters quietly about,

…that foul conspiracy
Of the beast Caliban and his confederates…

Although there is some redemption to be had, towards the end of the play. There often is redemption in literature. It cleans things up, closes the circle, completes the cycle. But life isn’t like literature – more’s the pity. Redemption does not always pour oil on our troubled waters in life.

Meaning, of course, derives from context, and separate quotes cannot convey that properly. Everyone’s understanding is different, so we read into things what we want to see. Intent and meaning may not be parallel paths. The fullness of the play carries the real meaning, not simply lines drawn at random.

Over the weekend, I read these lines in Goethe’s masterpiece, Faust (part one). Faust himself speaks:

Ah, happy he who can still hope to rise,
Emerging from this sea of fear and doubt!
What no man knows, alone could make us wise;
And what we know, we could well do without.

They seem deeper, richer than I recall them from my first reading. A few pages further, Mephistopheles comments to the audience after the deal with Faust has been signed:

So, knowledge and fair reason you’ll despise,
The highest powers by which you mortals rise.
The Prince of Lies it is that edifies you,
With all the flash of magic he supplies you

Ah, that crafty Prince of Lies. The opposer who leads humankind astray. Satan, if you believe in that sort of thing. Me, I see it as a metaphor for more human manifestation, something archetypal: Coyote, Loki, and Trickster. Br’er Rabbit with evil intent. Or is it Br’er Fox? Either way, a deceiver also creates drama in literature.

Is what we read really what the author intended, or is what comes through the veil of our own circumstances the truer meaning? Literature as the psyche’s mirror? Is it more valid to read Shakespeare, indeed any playwright, novelist or poet, looking for your own intent rather than the author’s?

Meager seems to think so. He says we can never really see the author’s true intent, no matter how we strive to find it:

…a search for the author’s intention is not a proper way to read a text…

I think Harold Bloom might disagree somewhat with him. In his book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Riverside, New York, 1998), Bloom wrote:

…no other writer, before or since Shakespeare, has accomplished so well the virtual miracle of creating utterly different yet self-consistent voices for his more than one hundred major characters and many hundreds of highly distinctive minor personages. The more one reads and ponders the plays of Shakespeare,the more one realizes that the accurate stance toward them is one of awe… They abide beyond the end of the mind’s reach; we cannot catch up to them. Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us…

Which suggests to me that he means our own contextual understanding, the through-the-personal-lens view, is limited, and we must search for the greater, even universal, meaning in the author’s intent. Look for the intrinsic, not the extrinsic.

Of course, trying to understand Shakespeare at any reasonable level of comprehension depends on having some grasp of the author’s own background, his education, his cultural, political and social influences, and his language. What I read into, say, Julius Caesar’s comment,

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

Or Casca’s description to Brutus of Caesar being lauded by the crowd:

Why, there was a crown offered him: and being
offered him, he put it by with the back of his hand,
thus; and then the people fell a-shouting.

…is filtered through my own experience. My derived meaning may not be even close to Shakespeare’s intent. Shakespeare’s references might be not to historical (Roman) times, or even to the general human condition, but to characters or events at Elizabeth’s contemporary court. It could be a veiled comment on politics of his day.

Reading Shakespeare is always like that: layered. Yet four hundred years later we can still find resonance in his writing. Which is why I still pick him up and read him with awe.

Whether what I read in those words reflects the author’s intent or is merely a mirror to my own imagination I can’t say.

All I know for sure that, opening the pages of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Chaucer, Cervantes, Austen or any of a number of works by great writers, gives me respite from the daily turmoil. Consolation and reflection.

~~~~~

* From Wikipedia:

Consolation of Philosophy was written during a one-year imprisonment Boethius served while awaiting trial … for the crime of treason … This experience inspired the text, which reflects on how evil can exist in a world governed by God (the problem of theodicy), and how happiness can be attainable amidst fickle fortune, while also considering the nature of happiness and God. It has been described as “by far the most interesting example of prison literature the world has ever seen.”

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