Greek to Me, by Mary Norris | The New Yorker

Mary Norris, also known as the Comma Queen, on the pleasures of a different alphabet.

Source: Greek to Me, by Mary Norris | The New Yorker

While I must confess that I really do not have an urge to study Greek, either ancient or modern (if I were going to take up the study of ancient languages again, they would be Latin and Old English) I thought this was an interesting piece.

Combining a first-person memoir with a defense of the study of classical languages in our current era, it is fair apologia which deserves to be considered by, as author Mary Norris puts it, “anyone who doubts the value of studying a dead language.”

It’s also worth a share in light of my earlier post on Greece’s Nea Dexia party, as it points out one of the ways in which the Greek “hill” (the Acropolis, in Failos Kranidiotis’ engaging metaphor) has influenced, and continues to influence, Western culture.

(Nota Bene: It should be noted that The New Yorker can still publish worthwhile articles – so long as one stays away from its left-leaning political ones.)

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This 1897 Text Gives 3 Clues Why Today’s Students Can’t Write | Intellectual Takeout

This 1897 Text Gives 3 Clues Why Today’s Students Can’t Write

Would we see American writing ability increase if these three elements were restored to the classroom?

Source: This 1897 Text Gives 3 Clues Why Today’s Students Can’t Write | Intellectual Takeout

Contemporary American society is suffering from a number of maladies, but one of the root issues is lack of literacy. I mean “literacy” in the full sense: not that people can’t read texts, “tweets,” memes, and maybe even blog posts, but that far too many do not seem to be able to in-depth, quality works of prose (and poetry), comprehending and interpreting the meaning (of which there may be several levels) and significance of them. And of course, that makes them much less capable writers, too: the other piece of the literacy puzzle. It’s one thing to understand; its another to share that understanding with others.

This is not just my perception, either; as this essay points out,

“[In late 2015] the Nation’s Report Card announced that no more than 40% of America’s 4th and 8th graders are proficient in reading and math. Those are scary numbers, but the numbers for writing are even more frightening: only 27% of American 8th and 12th graders attained proficiency.”

Now, I admit to a personal bias, here; but I would argue that it is perfectly possible to be a good, informed, and productive citizen without being particularly proficient in math (so long as one is not in a technical or scientific field which requires it).

But I would also argue that it is much more difficult, to the point of impossibility, to be a good, informed, and productive citizen – at least, of a representative, Constitutional, democratic republic such as we have – without having a pretty good grasp of literacy: that is, of reading and writing.

My late grandfather used to say, “if you can read, you can learn anything.” He was quite correct; but the corollary to that is that if you cannot read, you cannot learn much of anything – unless it’s something that can be taught entirely by video, and there are technological and practical limitations to that which do not exist with books.

And of course, if you cannot read well, you cannot write well, either; for the second flows directly from the first. And if you cannot write well, your ability to express yourself in nearly any topic – even in our technological age – will be severely curtailed. It is remarkable how text-heavy we still are, from “tweets” to blog posts like this one! It is also remarkable how poor-quality much of this writing actually is.

But perhaps there are steps we can take to improve the situation. As the essay notes, American schools, students, and even adults regularly violate three principles which Dr. Edwin Lewis deemed (1897) essential to the writing process. So what are these three principles?

1) They don’t read high-quality literature – and they don’t read it aloud. Here’s Dr. Lewis on the subject:

“One of the quickest ways of learning to know good English, is oral reading… If the student reads aloud from writers whose work was natural, unforced, original, he will gradually come to see his own ideas more clearly, feel his own feelings more keenly.”

2) They skim. “Speed-reading” was all the rage when I was in school, back in the 1970s and ’80s, but reading more is not necessarily reading better – or even, reading well at all. As Dr. Lewis pointed out,

“To get at the thoughts and really to retain the valuable expressions, the student must scrutinize and ponder as he reads. Each word must be thoroughly understood; its exact value in the given sentence must be grasped.”

3) They don’t memorize. Rote memorization has been in bad odor for decades; it certainly was in my school days. But allowing quality writing to sink into the memory is absolutely essential to giving a person the functional database that they can use to express their own thoughts in a creative, cogent, and intelligent manner. Dr. Lewis again:

“To the habit of memorizing, many a person is indebted not merely for high thoughts that cheer hours of solitude and that stimulate his own thinking, but for command of words.”

Both reading and writing may seem a touch passé in the present era; it is fashionable to push “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education, these days. And in the technological world in which we live, I do not doubt the utility of these fields.

But I think we would be better off as a society if we emphasized a complete, well-rounded education that laid particular stress on the ability to explore and understand a wide range of concepts – scientific and technological, yes, but also historical, cultural, political, and philosophical – through the tools of reading and writing about them.

To put the matter in a slightly tongue-in-cheek fashion,

Image result for science vs humanities meme dinosaurs

Q.E.D.!

The KJV, modern translations, and “the flattening of language”

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From Power and Glory: Jacobean England and the making of the King James Bible (excerpt courtesy of Robert M Shivers):

Luke 1:57 Now Elisabeth’s full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son. (King James Version)

Luke 1:57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to have her baby, and she gave birth to a son. (New English Translation)

That is a descent to dreariness, to a level of banality… The modern world had lost the thing which informs every act and gesture… of the King James Bible, and of that incomparable age: a sense of encompassing richness which stretches unbroken from the divine to the sculptural, from theological to cushions, from the sense of beauty of the created world to the extraordinary capabilities of language to embody it.

This is about more than mere sonority or the bees-waxed heritage-appeal of antique vocabulary and grammar. The flattening of language is the flattening of meaning. Language which is not taut with a sense of it’s own significance, which is apologetic in its desire to be acceptable to a modern consciousness, language in other words which submits to its audience, rather than instructing, informing, moving, challenging and even entertaining them, is no longer a language which can carry the freight the Bible requires. It has, in short, lost all authority.

The language of the King James Bible is the language of Hatfield, of patriarchy, of an instructed order, of richness as a form of beauty, of authority as a form of good; the New English Bible is motivated by the opposite; an anxiety not to bore or intimidate. It is driven, in other words, by the desire to please and, in that way, is a form of language which has died.

Indeed! One of my favorite passages is the great Christmas story, from the 2nd Chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke. See, for example, Luke 2:7 – in the Authorized (“King James”) Version, it reads,

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

The Revised Standard Version (RSV), which sought to retain many of the rhythms and much of the imagery of the KJV, isn’t bad:

And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

But in the New Revised Standard Version, things start to fall apart:

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

“Bands of cloth”…??? Really? What are we talking about, here, Ace bandages?

The NIV (“New International Version”) is even worse:

and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

“No guest room”…? This isn’t the Best Western we’re talking about, here, folks.

“The flattening of language is the flattening of meaning” – and it doesn’t get a whole lot flatter than that. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say that. Never say “it couldn’t get any worse,” someone is liable to prove you wrong. Shaking my head…….