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"Speak, that I may see thee."Posted Thursday, June 24, 2010, at 11:24 AM
"Language most shows a man; speak, that I may see thee." Ben Jonson
Before Johannes Gutenberg invented a printing press with movable type around the year 1440, books were largely produced one at a time, copied by hand.
The concept of owning a book was a foreign one to the average person, since most could not read. Books were the province of the wealthy, educated classes. And, since books were often produced by members of religious orders, they were written in Latin, making them even more inaccessible to the masses.
Gutenberg's revolutionary adaptation of a wine press from smashing grapes to transferring letters to paper changed the world in dramatic ways, particularly in regard to language.
A publisher who wanted to sell books had to use a language that was understood by most of the people in his demographic area, which led to the decline of Latin and the rise of national languages. This, in turn, led to the regularization of spelling and syntax, again for the purpose of making the printed word accessible to the highest number of readers.
And so it's possible to imagine a conversation something like this between Hans, the German editor of Wolf Press, and Franz, the Ernest Hemingway of medieval Salzburg:
Franz: "Say, Hans, I looked at the latest galleys of 'The Sun Does Not Rise' and noticed some errors."
Hans: "Errors? You think I have errors? Impossible -- my proofreaders are the best available!"
Franz: "Well, just look at this word on pages 29, 72, 184 and 226. What is g-a-u-x?"
Hans: "What do you mean, what is it? It's gaux, that's what it is! Can't you read?"
Franz: "Of course, I can read! I was educated at Heidelberg University, I'm your most popular writer and I know my German -- and g-a-u-x does not spell go! That word you're using spells gawks -- look at the x on the end of it! You're trying to change the entire meaning of my work!"
Laugh if you wish, but conversations like this must have happened, as writers and readers worked out the quirks of language and dialect and eventually came to some kind of agreement about how best to express their thoughts and ideas.
Nearly 600 years later, now "blessed" with spell-checking software and easily available online dictionaries, not to mention the thousands of books (and blogs) on the subject of writing, we still don't quite have things figured out.
It wasn't very many years ago that it was unusual to come across obvious spelling or grammatical errors in printed material. One of my favorites is a restaurant menu that listed "boneless beast of chicken on a bed or rice."
These errors are typographical. They are not the result of lapses in education or understanding -- whoever was responsible for typing the menu didn't notice the errors and neither did the person who did the proofreading.
But I've noticed in recent years that most of the books I read have at least a couple of spelling mistakes -- the kinds of mistakes that can't be passed off as typos. It's very clear that the people responsible for proofreading are just blowing through spellcheck accepting the first option as the correct one.
How else do we explain the improper use of the words to, too and two? The confusion between your and you're? The absolute failure of so many writers to distinguish between there, their and they're?
Part of the problem it is what one of my high school teachers referred to as being "lip-lazy." It's very difficult, she often said, to spell a word when you are not pronouncing it correctly. This is a common problem in the Midwest, where the words merry, marry and Mary are pronounced exactly the same way -- all of them sound like merry. Midwesterners also have a similar problem with then and than - they are pronounced, at least in this part of the country, as if they were spelled the same.
Lip-laziness, however, doesn't entirely explain our spelling problem. Can we blame it on the decline of reading?
We can try. In my opinion, people who read are better spellers. A reader who sees on the printed page that there are three ways to spell the word we hear as merry is probably more likely to spell it correctly in the proper context.
Maybe. But I have another theory.
I think it's the rise of e-mail, and especially its devil-sister, texting, that is ruining our ability to communicate.
Before e-mail, every office had a secretary who was responsible for producing documents intended to be read by others -- quaintly referred to then as "letters" or "memos." A secretary with good spelling and grammar skills was more precious than gold. For managers, supervisors and other document-producers who couldn't spell their way out of j-a-i-l, the secretary was excellent cover. And mostly, secretaries were women.
My attorney-sister, who taught legal writing at Seton Hall University for a number of years, summed up today's problem with communications very neatly for her students:
"Those of you who think you don't need to spell correctly and use good grammar in your legal writing because the secretary or the paralegal is going to catch your mistakes, look around you. Notice the number of women who are here in class with you. These are the ones who used to be secretaries. You're on your own now."
Truer words were never spoken. With the decline of secretarial "guardians at the gate," corporate e-mail has become a morass of poorly written garbage. Technical instructions are a joke -- if you've had the joy of "some assembly required," you know what I'm talking about. And social communications are becoming more and more difficult to comprehend.
Once again, the imaginary conversation with Franz and Hans is taking place, but it's now in the form of tweeting, texting and e-mail. Only this time, we're apparently more interested in the technology of how we communicate than in the substance of what we communicate.
Not exactly progress, is it?
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Kathy Fairchild received a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration in 1986 from Marycrest College, Davenport, Iowa. She is also a 2003 graduate of the paralegal program at New York University. She moved to Marshall in 2006, following a career of more than 30 years with the world's largest farm equipment manufacturer. She is an Air Force brat and grandmother of four.