Dr. Cathy Downs
Why Society Should Study
Language and Literature: An Open Letter
Dear Companions, compañeras, compagnons:
There are few things as intimate as language. Language is an invisible endowment, and likewise it is a capability that lies plenipotent yet mute until the moment it is called upon. For these reasons, rehearsing oneself, and teaching students how to rehearse oneself to speak and write, and to speak and write in all emotional and intellectual registers available to people is so very important.
Without the capacity to communicate, be that in gesture, in American Sign, in written Spanish, or in spoken English, in the margins and in shining illuminations, and in all our vernaculars and creoles, our ability to “be,” except in the wisest and most committed of us, is greatly diminished. In the workforce, the communicator writes newsletters, manages employees, makes sales, writes reports for granting agencies, state and city government. Minus that capacity of communication, we fill out data, follow procedures. Those of us who are wise in silence may find ways to be called to the table of plenty; however, the rest of us may find ourselves underemployed, unemployed. Sometimes it has been that command of language’s power erases the thoughts of those who would judge, prejudge us through our terrible disabilities, our gender, our color, our social class, or the accident of place of birth.
We live in a capitalist country; parents sending their sons and daughters to university use a capitalist idiom with which to consider the value of education. They ask, does education translate into work, and more importantly, into money? Parents, legislators, and their student-sons and –daughters echo the lingo of time-is-money; and they ask, and they have a right to ask, what is every hour spent learning about semicolons worth? Learning new vocabulary? Didn’t they learn enough in high school? And foreign language? Please. Don’t people know that foreign languages are . . . foreign?
Let me address the last one first. I could mention the old saw that we are a nation of immigrants, starting, if you wish, with the first White seekers of religious freedom, the first Conquistadores seeking all that glisters. The first man or woman who crossed Beringia, or who scouted the yet-unnamed California coastline and spoke a single sentence in some lost language: may we define this person, too, as immigrant? Let’s stretch for a moment, not beyond, but into these ideas. In the family of languages and in the family of humankind, not one word, not one comma, not one ideogram, glyph, or sign is foreign, if one allows oneself a largess of thought. My native tongue is allied with Spanish and French in multiple ways. Shallowly, I can borrow words: bronco, cafeteria, chic, joie de vivre. Less shallowly, I may note that my word, joy, and the French term, joie, are pronounced with slight difference and adopt different spellings to indicate the same basic notion. Those pronunciations and spellings passed through different ethnicities, different intellectual traditions, different traditions in orthography and in composition in different printing and publication industries. Those words, joy and joie, bear the histories of those in whose mouths and hands they travelled on their human journeys. If one wishes, one may time travel, using only words, to follow the arc of human history. One may do this if one knows words in multiple languages, or even if one is a close student of his or her own language. I am telling you, at points back in time, the rivers of language were few; that the force of history (a war, a drought, an opening vista) divided language, and the human family into many bright streams. Language is a window into the dwelling-places of our humanity.
Time is not money. Time is time. Perhaps there should have been a unique torture devised by those who invented the idea that time, not just can be measured in dollars, but should be measured in dollars. Or perhaps I should not wish torture upon early holders of that notion, since the phrase’s inventor was B. Franklin, Printer. Instead, perhaps I should chastise his ghost: time spent on language does not earn money directly. Language learning repays in long-term capital gains that we call expertise or grace in speech, in writing. Time spent on semicolons repays, not in money, not in an hourly wage calculated against the hours spent in semicolon practice. Rather it repays in command of the ebb and flow of the written thought. Time spent learning to hit a sinker teaches one much about the physics of curve balls, but only later, if one is lucky indeed, in a baseball career. Only the time spent actually manufacturing an object or idea that may be sold translates, in some way or another, into profit and loss. The time that we spend in high school, college, or graduate school, may “professionalize” one, read, prepare one for employment. But that professionalization is often lagniappe, and not the main dish, which is a big vocabulary in all speech, written fluency independent of supervision, and a certain facility with the breaking ball.
If they wish, people can look up curve balls and the English sentence on the World Wide Web, but Google cannot replace hours of classroom rehearsal or practice at home base. The World Wide Web is good for instructions, for steps. We learn language as layers; we learn different layers, different linguistic acts, as we grow into our language, our mature speech ways.
Language is a signature written by human culture. It bears joy in the pun, in the good news, in the dirty joke, or in religious ecstasy. Unlike the beasts with which we share this living-space, we can cherish up a thought in print, physically hand it to a colleague as instruction, or to a child a memorabilia of kin, or bequeath to those who do not know us as a mark of our having been. Have you ever read the tablets of the Gilgamesh, 4200 years old at this writing? They tell the story of a person who lost a friend and mourned. To read that epic is comfort to those of us who have lost and are in mourning. We are creatures of community, and in language we share a great community.
To alienate linguistic richness from ourselves because “time is money” or “semicolons do not create value” I would not call “silly,” but I would name with some much darker cognomen. The semicolon, the words gracias, merci, benediction do not stand alone; their worth should not be measured in the number of letters used to inscribe them or in the time it takes to learn them. Each of these is part of a much bigger whole and a really noble and human project. To chisel away at language learning because, well, time is money, and because semicolons are so last century is to have failed to read the skywriter’s message because the letters are writ too large.
Dr. C. Downs
Professor of English
Department of Language and Literature
TAMUK, Kingsville, TX 78363