Tag Archives: language

Bright Star

Steve Martin

My wife and I saw “Bright Star” yesterday. We loved it. You will too, and I’ll tell you why.

On the surface, it’s a typical musical, bustling with subplots about young love, the pains and joys of family relations, and Southern gothic melodrama, all peppered with timely comic relief. But it’s really about writing, editing, and language itself. Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) wrote the book, and in addition to his accomplishments as an actor, director, and musician, is a gifted writer. He knows what it’s like to be rejected, to hang in there, and finally get that first manuscript published.

Billy Cane, just returned to Zebulon, North Carolina after serving in WWII, has a bad case of the writing bug. It’s so bad, he’s willing to leave his beloved home town and move to Asheville to endure the rigors of pleasing a demanding editor and her good cop/bad cop assistants. All writers will appreciate young Billy’s exchanges with his editor, who’s brutally honest with what she sees as a promising talent. At one point, she shoves a manuscript back at him as if it’s toxic, then lets another dangle in her fingers and says, “This may be acceptable if you delete 300 words.” Poor Billy scans a few pages, scratches his head, and replies, “Could you tell me WHICH 300?”

There are many references to the Southern writing tradition. Steve Martin, who was born in Texas, knows a thing or two about language’s ability to uplift, to wound, and to connect with others, familiar and rich themes often explored in Southern literature. This musical is a celebration of faith in one’s family, in one’s ability to persevere, and to hope. If you get the chance, don’t miss this one. It’s a winner.

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The Linguist as piñata

Noam Chomsky

From Scientific American:

Noam Chomsky’s political views attract so much attention that it’s easy to forget he’s a scientist, one of the most influential who ever lived. Beginning in the 1950s, Chomsky contended that all humans possess an innate capacity for language, activated in infancy by minimal environmental stimuli. He has elaborated and revised his theory of language acquisition ever since.

It’s a great article, and includes an interview with another accomplished linguist, Steven Pinker. Pinker concludes that even after decades of brutal examination and criticism, Chomsky’s famous thesis best explains how children master language. The alternatives boil down to arguing that language is an artificial construct of the rational mind that children, starting from a blank slate, must learn.

This vindication of Chomsky’s universal grammar theory is interesting on two counts, and both impact my writing. First, I’m fascinated by language. More important, scientific support of language as an inborn capability bolsters the view that people are naturally social, as opposed to the atomistic, rationalistic view of humanity pushed by both Hobbesians and Marxists.

We’re not plopped on this planet to enrich ourselves and consume; we are born to experience the world and find ourselves in it. That’s the worldview that animates everything I write.

Tolkien, Trees, and Tradition

TreeRoots

Joseph Pearce explores Tolkien’s reverence for language and heritage:

This deep understanding of language is analogous to an understanding of history. If we want to understand where we are now and where we are going, we have to understand where we have been. And what is true of history in the broader sense is equally true of the history of words. In order to really speak well, write well, or think clearly, we need to use words correctly. We need to know linguistic tradition. We need to be linguistic traditionalists. We have to be in touch with the language, its roots, and its heritage. We need to become linguistic tree-huggers! We do not necessarily have to speak very quickly; we have to speak well. We have to speak accurately, with a precision of meaning. Contrary to Peter Jackson’s tragically abusive presentation of the Ents in his film version of Tolkien’s epic, in which they appear to be dim-wits who are outwitted by the smartness of the hobbits, we know that when Tolkien’s Ents come to a decision it will be the right one, because they have been absolutely precise in the way they have used their words. They think and speak definitely, in accordance with precise definition. They define their terms and they know their meanings. They are the opposite of postmoderns and nihilists who see no meaningful roots to the cosmos because they see no meaningful roots to words.

Modernism, argues Pearce, is vandalism that fancies itself to be liberation from a constraining  past. Indeed, it celebrates the murder of authenticity, as it demands that all heritage chains down the individual. Of course, what actually happens is not a glorious jail-break from nature and history, but alienation from those things Charlene Spretnak has identified as the prime Modernist targets: “the knowing body, the creative cosmos, and the complex sense of place.” If we lose those things, then we are unshielded from today’s manipulators of language and value who profit by convincing us that our identity is discretionary, and can be as sleek and desirable as the Gap jeans and Zappo shoes they urge us to buy.