Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Words and The Paths Of Desire - Lexographical and Grammatical Musings

I was in bed Sunday night, listening to Latino USA on NPR. I heard an interview with Reverend Ignacio Castuera speaking about tolerance and how words, concepts and perceptions change over time. You can listen to an mp3 recording of the interview.

Toward the end he explained that when the founding fathers said “We hold these truths to be self evident” it was only intended for wealthy male land owners and their sons. However, the words and the concepts behind them grew greater than any man in that room could have imagined.

The words found their path of desire. It is an architecture term used to describe when humans collectively or instinctively create a walking path to a destination. What was impossible is now visible. For example: You have a building. You have a cement walkway pointing toward the building. Yet there is often a diagonal line found in a path of trampled grass that people have created to find their way to the building.

Bingo, that is a path of desire. Building planners can anticipate it but they don’t always get it right. We also build paths of desire with words, concepts and meanings. So here are a few bloggers that, in their own ways, are building language paths of desire.

Prescriptive, Descriptive and How Folks Talk Around Here

If you want to start a fight among word junkies, scientists and historians just ask about what function a dictionary should serve. To tell you literally what a word means or gives you the context to understand the meaning?

Darling Nikki at Grown Up Girl Lost shares her pre-teen confusion on her mom’s insistence on “looking it up in the dictionary.”

Something I never understood was the constant referring to the dictionary. It was like the 70s parents bible to half assed parenting! “Muuuum, how do you spell complicated?” Response? “Look it up in the dictionary!” Are you freakin’ serious? What is it, a state secret?

Erin McKean blogs  at Dictionary Evangelista. She is also an lexicographer and editor of the Oxford American Dictionary. In 2007 at the TED Conference she gave a wonderful presentation about words, dictionaries and the living force of meaning. The presentation is 18 minutes. You won’t be sorry.


Heather at Single Multilingual is an Au Pair in Italy and an observer of languages. Her two young charges insisted that her dark brown hair was blonde:

In Italian, there exist the colours blonde, brown and black, but the cut off line between what is actually defined as blonde or brown is different to that in English. Anyone who has seen the colour of my hair will agree that it is a medium to dark shade of brown in English terms. However, when I attempted to explain this to dark haired Marta, I was met with rigid opposition. "Absolutely not,” cried Marta, “There’s no way. I have brown hair! Yours is "biondo scuro" (dark blonde)." "She's right," added Ludovica, "in Italy, anyone with your shade of hair would choose to dye it blonde. It is light enough to be possible. As for us, we have true brown hair."

Yes, location, location, location. I can tell you from my experience, if the locals call it “Water Ice” do not refer to it a “Shaved Ice” unless the is someone shaving a block of ice in your presence and putting flavor syrup around the cone. It is not the same thing, although conceptually, it is. But it isn’t. Honest, trust me on this one. It is not just what the words say they mean but their location and context in the environment used play a huge role in understanding.

There Are Rules and Then There Are Rules to Be Broken

Yes, there are rules about the spoken form of language and the written form of language. And they are necessary.

I try my best but I sense there is a Grammarian out there who would love to put me on typographical lock down. In my defense, and it is a limited one, I type as I speak and revise later. If I forget to shift language modes it can be disconcerting. And I’m not supposed to end a sentence like I just did huh? Dang.

I may not have time to read as much as I want to but I certainly can download a podcast or two. Mignon Fogarty at Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing might be helpful where five different books on grammar and usage have failed me. Not that they didn’t have the answers that I needed I just can’t find the books when I do need help.

If you don’t have a media player, no worries, there are transcripts available at the web site. Merrilee Faber at Not Enough words has a helpful post at Stop! Grammar Time offering aid and assistance to those of us that mix up “passed” and “past.”

A Way With Word with Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett kind of takes us back on the multiple paths of desire that the English language can take you. English is a living language and it gets adapted, changed and reinvented all of the time. This is a podcast that can help you find your paths to all of those luscious words that are just waiting for someone to use.

Language is to be used and loved and snarled. Don’t hate the Grammarians but don’t live in fear of them either. They are nice people, except for the posers. Communicate and take your rightful place on the path of desire, Linguistically speaking.

This post appeared on BlogHer where I am a Contributing Editor.

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