A Reflection on Language, from Class

On the Identity of Language

Language is, in the simplest terms, any systematic means of communication used to express and to convey ideas. That language may be spoken, it may be written, it may be gestured or represented by images, but it must be possessed of a structure—a grammar—of governing rules which allows for understanding between speakers/readers/signers.

Until last week, I had been thinking of grammar as a unified, monolithic thing, as a governing convention which I, as both a speaker and writer of contemporary English, might choose to follow or break as necessary. I had never considered there might be three kinds of grammar: mental, descriptive, prescriptive. Prescriptive grammar, the rules and codifications trotted out to me over the course of my many years of English education, was all I had ever considered. Descriptive grammar, which contains all the colloquial errors made by the average speaker, had not entered my considerations as a thing worth studying in any capacity beyond the sense that mistakes are useful teaching opportunities.

For the record, I still do think prescriptive grammar is useful, more than that, I think it is absolutely crucial to clear and unambiguous communication. More than that, I personally enjoy the confusing shades of word choice the English language asks of its more discerning speakers. I for one am a particular fan of the distinction between the words “hung” and “hanged,” a distinction so monumentally arbitrary as to be almost absurd, but the result of which is a curious texturing to English that should be celebrated by each and every one of its speakers.

That, to me, is what language is. More than its scientific definition as systematic communication, language is beautiful. We have, in our modern and bloodless era, a conceit that language is a sort of delivery mechanism, that language exists only to deliver ideas from one brain to the next, and that only the information conveyed is of any use. But language is more than that, not merely a tool but a product in itself, as any reader of William Shakespeare or John Keats could tell you. Language must occupy a space in our society equal parts science and art, and we as speakers should revel in the beauty and in the power of words. It is, if you will excuse the metaphor, not only the paint, but the painting. Sure, one could just paint a wall solid red, one could just convey the information directly, but you can use the same medium to create masterpieces. We use the same words Shakespeare uses all the time, to far poorer effect.

That being said, I do agree with the assertion that language is arbitrary. The rules of prescribed grammar—and the conventions of described grammar, even when they are at direct odds with the prescribed rules—are only the rules because we all agree they are the rules. And that really is a fascinating thing to consider. If all of us right now decided that trees weren’t going to be called trees anymore, and instead we would start calling them ergs, then suddenly there would be birds singing in the ergtops and people lounging in the shade of an erg, and suddenly the world would sound like a very different place while in reality absolutely nothing would have changed.

Having considered that though, is there any reason that trees are called trees? Are languages somehow optimized? And if so, along what lines? Is there somewhere a better word for tree? I know I’m proposing very bizarre questions, but it brooks discussion, I think.

On Worrying

So I already failed in my “two posts a week” promise to myself, so that’s…awesome.

It’s not like I’m surprised though, this summer has seen me work two jobs: my usual one waiting tables and an extra one for NC State University working with Student Housing. On top of that I’ll be moving out of the dormitories and into my own first apartment in just about a week, which has been as terrifying as one might imagine/remember. Not to say it isn’t exciting. And to make matters worse and more interesting simultaneously, I’ve got my project over on http://www.youtube.com/vlogsvaria launching August 1st (a vlog which I anticipate will cause me to blog in written form much less…but we’ll see), above which there remains the dual spectre of school work looming in mid-August and the ever-present Sword of Damocles that is my novel…currently at about the 9% completion mark by word count goal…although that’s subject to some reconsideration. AND I almost forgot: I will be President of the newly created Science Fiction and Fantasy Club at the university come the Fall Semester, while simultaneously trying to maintain my status as a moderately active member of the Secular Student Alliance. As Paul Atreides once scathingly said to Gaius Helen Mohiam, “You take a lot on yourselves.” Now that I’ve taken a lot on myself…we’ll see if I actually like being busy.

All of which–despite a rather titanic, if temporary hiccup with the apartment–is going extremely well. Even my pledge to go to the gym is going well: I saw my friend Michael for the first time in about two months last Friday and he said, “You look like you’ve been working out.” Considering I haven’t been working out that much…it’s good to know it’s working. Even my social life is improving, which is practically unheard of for a nerd like myself who’s most at home locked in a room by himself, with a laptop, writing.

Still, I can’t help but worry. I’m worried I’ll continue to forget using my blog, worried my more permanent job at the restaurant won’t be able to support me, worried the apartment will end up impoverishing me, worried no one will care about or even watch Vlogsvaria, worried I won’t be able to keep my grades at their current level, worried my book will suck and I’ll be doomed to a life locked in a cubicle instead of a room, worried the Sci-Fi/Fantasy Club will be an unmitigated disaster, worried I’ll fail at my fitness challenge and continue to be monstrously unhealthy…worried my social life will revert to the high school days of absolute suckitude (it should be a word).

And to be honest, I don’t know what the appropriate response to all this worry is. I feel it would be wrong to try the “hakuna matata” approach and not worry at all. Comedian Christopher Titus once said that we’re “…supposed to worry about the bills getting paid because that’s how the bills get paid!” And he’s right, but I feel it is equally dangerous to worry constantly, as is my general modus. My friend Jordan is pre-med in neurobiology and has spent almost a year now on a paper regarding stress, worry and their effect (affect? I really have the hardest time with these two, anyone? Victoria, if you’re reading this let me know!) on both physical and psychological health. And I don’t want to make myself sick with worry–that’s worrying in and of itself.

Which would be hilarious if it was not so, so sad.

And which would be sad if I didn’t think it was so funny.

So We Built a Swamp

I spent the last week at Walt Disney World, hence my lack of posts. And while I may be twenty and no longer really interested in the teacups of the flying carpet carnival-type stuff, and while the genius of rides like “The Haunted Mansion” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” is now much easier for me to appreciate, and while I enjoy the unadulterated nerdiness of both “Star Tours” and “Mission: Space,” I find the experiences I enjoyed most were rides like “Spaceship Earth” and “Living with the Land.” I don’t enjoy them the way I enjoy roller coasters or 3D simulators, or the way I enjoy the manner in which the folks at Disney brought the whole world to Epcot in a meaningful way, but in a way that transcends these things–in a way that makes me hope.

The world is getting bleaker every day: we can no longer trust our own government, the price of gas is still high, the economy shows no signs of improving from where I’m standing…and the Western Black Rhino was just declared extinct. But Disney World still sets the twelve-year-old within me to dream of a brighter tomorrow.

I make no secret of my adoration for Walt Disney, the man was decades ahead of his time, a conservationist in the days before conservationism was a thing, a dreamer in the best Golden Age sense of science fiction, as any visitor to Tomorrowland in the Magic Kingdom can attest. He believed–in an era of Atomic terror–not only in a future, but in a brighter future. His was a future where humankind had conquered the evils that beset it. One of his dying dreams was of Epcot–the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. It was to be a shining city, not on a hill, but in a swamp. And while his concept for Epcot proved untenable in the years following his death, the park was built as a glorified, neverending World’s Fair, and it hasn’t closed its gates since.

While in Epcot (my favorite of the four parks), I had the great privilege of taking a backstage tour with my family. I learned a great many things on the tour, and got to cut the entire line for “Soarin'” which is just fantastic, as the wait for that attraction is never less than an hour, but the most impressive, somehow, was Disney’s–the company’s and the man’s both–commitment to only develop two thirds of the land they own in central Florida and to replace any biomes they uprooted with something equally valuable. The Magic Kingdom, for instance, is located where it is precisely because it was on the land Walt deemed the least worthwhile, as he planned to save his best land for the city of Epcot. The Magic Kingdom is sitting on what once had been a swamp, the water from that area relocated to the giant lake just outside the front gates.

“And so we built a swamp,” my tour guide, a wonderful gentleman named Robert, said, “…turns out you can build a swamp, no one knew–no one had tried it before.”

I was reminded in that moment of a quote from Frank Herbert’s Dune, in which the dying Liet-Kynes hallucinates his long-dead father, who says “‘We must do a thing on Arrakis never before attempted for an entire planet… We must use man as a constructive ecological force–inserting adapted terraform life: a plant here, an animal there, a man in that place–to transform the water cycle, to build a new kind of landscape'” (Herbert). I can’t fault Kynes’ father for being wrong, he’s a fictional hallucination dreamed up by his parched and dying son. But what’s important here is that Dune was written in ’63, serialized in Analog and published on its own in ’65. Walt Disney died in ’66, and Epcot opened in ’82. Within decades Kynes’ words–and through Kynes, Herbert’s fear that mankind would go on being destructive for thousands and thousands of years (it’s worth noting that Earth is long destroyed and lost in Dune) is looking less likely.

Disney built a swamp. Maybe we should build one too, or build a rainforest, or a savannah.

Make the desert bloom.

 

Dare to dream,

Christopher Ruocchio

On “That One Book”

I promise I’m not trying to set up a purely book-themed blog. It’s just that I’ve been spending a lot of time in Barnes and Noble surrounded by books while writing my own book, and I just purchased a Nook (which I am enjoying immensely). Consequentially, I find myself positively fat on literature at this point in time.

To further compound the issue, Iain M. Banks passed away last week at the depressingly young age of 59. To those of you who do not know, Iain M. Banks was a writer of both science fiction and regular fiction. Nerd that I am, though, I confess it has been to his science fiction that I have given the whole of my attention.

No matter who you are, even if you barely read, you’ve had that one book. The one that got to you, changed you in some fundamental and very real sense. The more you read, the more of those one books you have, and the more you change and grow as a person. This is part of why reading is so terribly important. Not to discount the mass and charge of film (and to a lesser, but noteworthy extent: television and video games) but the written word has a power to raise consciousness that we in our chrome-plated future have begun to forget, to our pain.

I’ve had several of those one books: Frank Herbert’s Dune, J.R.R. Tolkien’s entire body of work, Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, Hamlet…the list goes on. Sadly, I hadn’t realized the importance of Iain M. Banks on that list until it was almost too late. His “The Player of Games,” “Surface Detail,” and especially his “Use of Weapons” has had something of a lasting influence on my meager work. But I’ll never get to tell Frank Herbert, or J.R.R. Tolkien–or William Shakespeare for that matter–how important they’ve been to me either.

What does that leave me with? Well, only writing I guess.

Only words.

Best wishes,

Christopher Ruocchio

Thoughts on eReaders

So Barnes and Noble has a sale on Nooks in honor of Father’s Day for something very close to half off. This is exciting, because while I am primarily a literature nerd, I do love me some gadgets. (Yes, I am entirely aware of how embarrassingly bad that sentence is, but it’s for effect.)

I think I’m going to get one, the opportunity being as golden as it is.

I was hesitant to do so at first, if only because it felt like cheating on books…and if there’s one thing I love more than books, it’s Doctor Who–and food. In any case, I initially found the prospect of betraying books rather an alarming one–but I’m also a sucker for economy. Specifically, I am a sucker for having as much money in my accounts as possible, because one day I want to get it all and quarters and swim in it like Scrooge McDuck. Actually that would hurt and be unsanitary…ah well, dare to dream.

But I played with one of the top-end Nooks yesterday at my local Barnes and Noble…and I found I really, really liked it. A lot. Then I realized that it would enable me to read a whole lot more books than I currently do for way less money…leaving me more money to buy nice hard cover copies of books I really like and episodes of Doctor Who on DVD and Blu-ray.

I do love my physical media, I’m the only person my age I know who actually buys movies on DVD anymore. And I do think that’s sad…but I recognize that Netflix and eReaders allow a greater rate of consumption, and the only think I like to consume more than food is media. (I apologize for all the food references, at time of writing I’m stuck behind a dormitory desk waiting to be set free and I kinda missed breakfast, so food is on my mind.) In any case, eReaders–particularly eReader apps on devices like smartphones and iPads that aren’t exclusively eReaders allow for a greater volume of material to reach a greater number of people. Stephen Fry (who may or may not be the reincarnation of Oscar Wilde, if there is such a thing as reincarnation) once said that the Kindle is as threatening to books as elevators are to stairs. I would like to add to that in pointing out that without elevators we would not have skyscrapers…because no one would want to climb all those stairs.

Best wishes,

Christopher Ruocchio