Back to Blog
Gabriel Garcia Marquez died Thursday. I admit, I have never been a rabid fan of his work (I probably never gave it the attention it warrants), but I have a massive amount of respect for his output and his legacy, which has reminded a large part of the literary world of the power of Spanish language literature. All too often we forget that the modern European novel owes its genesis to Spaniard Miguel de Cervantes (yes, I know Garcia Marquez was Colombian), and I know I am guilty of being woefully ignorant of all other Spanish language novels despite being a voracious reader. Part of this ignorance comes from my wish to read things in their original languages and I do not speak Spanish, but I read the Russians with regularity though I do not speak Russian (yet) and thus cannot count this as a valid excuse. Author William Kennedy called Garcia Marquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude “The first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race” in a New York Times book review; perhaps it is time for me to stop making excuses and start truly appreciating a massive section of the literary spectrum that I have neglected.
I have had language in general on my mind today; I cannot figure out why. Perhaps it was hearing the name of such a literary behemoth repeated across all of the news outlets. Perhaps I have just been in a mood. On a lark I decided to rewatch the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson episode without an audience where Craig Ferguson and Stephen Fry simply sit down and talk.
I absolutely adore Craig Ferguson; I love his ability to navigate the waters of the absurd and the insightful. When he is conducting a serious interview or professing a genuine opinion, he is masterfully able to make a point with an air of complete sincerity and surprising insight. When he is goofing off with his robot skeleton sidekick or pantomime horse, he is ridiculous and uproariously funny. And the whole while he gives off an enthusiasm for his job, his situation, America, and seeing his guests succeed that makes the rest of the world a bit brighter for the people lucky enough to spend the hour watching.
I also adore Stephen Fry. I tend to watch a great deal of British panel shows, and QI anchors my television docket. I feel a certain kinship with Mr. Fry; yes, he is Cambridge educated, but his persona as an academic seems to be more one of the autodidact. He comes across as loving knowledge of all kinds and plays the role of the bon vivant beautifully. I flatter myself that in this way we are quite similar; I tutor not to become rich (that is pretty much out of the question anyway) but because I love learning and I want to help others learn to love it too. I work across subjects not only because I can but also because I have a genuine interest and aptitude across subjects and find that I enjoy experiencing the world more when equipped with a wealth of facts and knowledge. I therefore follow Stephen Fry, his work, and his interviews fairly closely.
In this particular interview, Ferguson and Fry jump from topic to topic, but they spend a few minutes discussing language and specifically Twitter. Both tout the poetry that can be found in being forced to condense communication into 140 meager characters, and both argue that the shorthand that has followed the Twitter and texting cultures (and indeed every form of communication where characters are at a premium) is harmless and indeed sensible. I would not presume to argue that this shorthand does not have a place in society; Fry is correct in that the character limit forces people to self-edit, and there is a particular beauty in the stripping bare that modern social media and digital communication facilitates.
However, at the risk of sounding profoundly old-fashioned and perhaps closed minded, my admiration of "textspeak" is cautious at best. The issue that happens when one tries to implement a new variant of communication is that the "proper" means of communication ends up being subjugated. I see students on a daily basis struggle with writing papers or doing test prep because they have never learned proper English grammar; they cannot recognize comma rules or they mix tenses with no idea what they are doing wrong, and more worrying, they do not understand why this is a problem. I see the same kind of behavior with my music students who try to bypass the basics of learning to read the staff, count quarter notes, or learn basic repertoire and history in favor of doing overcomplicated things or creating electronic pieces with no idea why certain pieces go together or how things work. As a result, when I ask these students to actually join in discussion about their work, they are largely unable to express themselves in favor of "I just like it", which strips these students of their power. These students tend to plateau easier and then develop self-defeating attitudes that stifle real ability and improvement. There is an epidemic of trying to run before one can walk that makes me very uneasy with modern culture.
The English language is an utterly beautiful and complex beast, and I wish I could make more students see this in today's society. The OED suggests that if we were to add together the modern lexicon, archaic or obsolete words, et cetera, the English language would contain roughly three quarters of a million words. This number is only growing as English continues to evolve and draw from other languages. This wealth of words allows us to communicate with extraordinary precision, and to me, this is more beautiful than the 140 character poetry of Twitter could ever be. If we look at syntax and the parts of speech, we can use the same exact set of words to mean multiple things, thus affording us with incredible power.
I am not saying that English speakers should adopt a florid, overly verbose style of speech (though I tend to be quite wordy myself); there is no reason to try to revert back to Elizabethan English or the winding euphemistic language of the Victorian period. I simply become very uneasy when watching today's youth (and I include my own generation in this category) attempting to be conversant in a barebones version of English without being conversant in everyday written English. Often things that are more laid bare require a higher level of facility and nuance than things that are more involved (look at the compositions of someone like Steve Reich versus some kind of massive Wagnerian composition with forty parts working together; there is nowhere to hide in simplicity). By allowing students and young people to use text/Twitter style language in everyday use while not making a concerted effort to teach "proper" English, we are denying students important tools that they can use throughout life and propagate a culture of mediocrity that I have a very hard time accepting.
In 2003 the British network ITV ran a documentary series on English presented by Melvyn Bragg called The Adventure of English. I watched it for the first time out of boredom maybe 4 years ago; I have seen it at least once a year since. The series personifies the English language; the viewer is left feeling as though English is a living, breathing entity, affected by major and minor events much the same way as societies and individuals are affected. It is a series created for popular consumption, and it accomplishes its goal very keenly. I am half tempted to add it to the beginning sessions for all of my test prep students. Language is a finicky, beautiful tool and cultural snapshot, and I wish it received more appreciation by today's youth and their teachers for all of its beauty and complexity. It truly is a living entity and holds a massive amount of wisdom for us all.