Earlier in the semester, I had the honor of co-presenting at a rhetorics conference with a scholar from l’Ecole Normal Supériure – Lettres et Sciences Humaines of Lyon, France. Her paper was in English, but she discussed the French gendered wordplay of a popular comedian. She noted that French children from early ages participate in observations of how (their) language works. In other words, French people don't just speak and write French but they also are aware of and practice metalanguage (or talk, thought, and emotion about talk). Maybe the French postmodernists and French feminists are so much more fun for the French than they are for us readers of them in English translation. Fortunately, my paper (a presentation of the ancient Greek language of men and women about women) was in English - and our English language audience (of Americans, Brits, Chinese, French, Italians, and Vietnamese people) was accustomed to the metalanguage of academic English.
Which brings me to the question of what English is.
Some of you know that professionally I administer the programs at a U.S. university for learners of English as an additional language. There is something called "English" that some of us teach and many of us learn. Sometimes, we'll conveniently pinpoint this thing even further by calling it "academic English" and even "American academic English." But I was taken aback the other day when the sales representative of a major publishing house came to campus to demonstrate the company's new standardized test of academic English. The test has not only "American English" but also other Englishes - for example, a lecture in South African English.
Wow. How will students learn these differences, I wonder? The sales representative confessed that variant spellings (i.e., British spellings and American spellings) are allowed in the writing portion of the test. Of course they are.
Now things are really complex. Our English students already love to bring us poems on the absurdity of English spelling, for example. And on the new test there's even more difference to master.
Now, I'm back to that question of what English is.
English writing is hardly a dynamically equal experience to English speaking. No, there's no pure sound-sight correspondence in English as between (1) pronounced ancient Greek and (2) the classic Greek alphabet. (Or, to take a contemporary, living language example: there's no direct relationship in English between speaking and spelling as there is for either European or American Spanish).
So our English students and the faculty members in our ESL department listen to me saying that English is a mixture, a hybrid, a stew of many other languages, and many stews in many different places over many different time periods. That's hardly satisfying. We want English to be what it is. We want what is not English to be something else different entirely.
This is Aristotle's game of logic. Aristotle would call English bar-bar-istic. It is impure, it messy, it is hard to learn and to teach, it is to be cleaned up by the grammar police and the spelling guardians, or else. And let's get the basic skills of unambiguous English communication before we ever teach metalinguistic wordplay.
The sounds of English are grating, Aristotle would say. Listen:
O... O god... Ooo Oh god... Oh... O... O... Oh god... Oh yeah right there Oh! Oh... Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes... O... Oh... Yes Yes Yes.... Oh... Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes... O... Oh... Oh... Oh god Oh... O... Uh...
(Sally's faking an orgasm and is using a deity's name in vain in public in an American pop movie about lovers)
OOOO that Shakespeherian Rag--
(T. S. Eliot is speaking for someone else, not even Shakespeare's Lucrece, in his "Waste Land")
My "I" seems simply not to be the male-constructed "I.": It is more fluid, diffuse, multiplex (giddy, duplicitous, and inconstant, I think men have called it). Maybe we need another sort of signifier for the female self--the "O" might be a logical choice, or rather a whole string of Os: OOOOO. That's me. The fact of the matter, though, is that when I sit down at my desk to tell a story, I can't begin, "OOOOO woke this morning to the song of a cardinal in the fig tree outside the back door."
(Nancy Mairs is struggling with writing in English, in feminine English - but isn't she playing here also with both the phallic and feminine sights of an English with such different sounds?)
Aristotle helps me understand "English." Aristotle helps me understand the "female." But he wants his male-only elite Greek students in his academy to understand barbarisms and women the way he understands them. He wants to define them (what they are and what they must NOT be in nature). He wants to categorize them, to place them in their place (below good Greek and below any male). He wants to avoid their sounds, their sights. He wants them not to make his privileged life difficult, not to bend what he wants to be rigidly straightforward, not to dirty up what he wants to be unpolluted. And he wants us all to listen to his intent (No pun intended!).
And yet. And yet if we listen with our intent we hear more.