The elasticity of English

Reflections of an English-language outlaw

Being bilingual is a cornerstone of my writing life. My multi-culti take on vocabulary and grammar has given me insight into Hawaiian culture, guided my perspectives on syntax, and shaped my ideas of adventurous prose. Let me be clear, though: I am bilingual in English. I grew up toggling between Standard English and Hawaiian Creole. My hybrid habits of speech have been the catalyst behind some of my most favorite projects and my books (especially Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch and Sin and Syntax). And being bilingual has developed my ear for language and given me a true appreciation not just for vocabulary, but also for the sound of words and the rhythm of sentences.

In a recent interview, a member of the Berkeley chapter of the California Writers Club broached questions with me about the subtle hierarchies of English. I found myself to be embarrassingly long-winded about grammatical rules, conversational flow, linguistic evolution, elitism, and the importance of studying foreign languages. I believe that among the most fantastic aspects of English are its elasticity and its history of incorporating words and idioms from other languages.

No, I do not stand with the purists or the rule-makers, who often misunderstand this very attribute. After all, the folks who invented “English grammar” in the 18th century did so with an unsophisticated understanding of our language. They took rules from Latin and applied them to English, even though our mother tongue is not a Romance language. (It’s a Germanic one.) We should all be grammar skeptics, especially given the way grammar as it is often taught, with a list of absolutes and rules.

That said, writers traffic in language—in words, phrasing, the ins and outs of sentences. To call yourself a writer without a pretty good handle on English is fraudulent or lazy—sort of like a painter saying he or she doesn’t need to understand the color wheel. Indeed, it is incumbent upon us to study English. And study and study. To love language is to know it. We need to learn the “rules” and we need to learn when it’s smart to break them. We also need to acquaint ourselves with all kinds of tools—whether usage manuals or visual thesauruses or inspiring books we return to again and again. My own eclectic list of favorites: Letters to a Young Poet (by Rilke), the first edition of Modern English Usage (Fowler), The Reader Over Your Shoulder (Graves), The Transitive Vampire (Gordon), “The Night Surf” by W. S. Merwin, and anything by Shakespeare.

I doubt that Shakespeare was bilingual, but he was a wholehearted borrower. We should all appreciate words from other languages, and use them. But we might do Shakespeare one better, trying to be bilingual, or at least seriously studying other languages. Not just so that we can go beyond our own culture bubbles, but because, as Ezra Pound once said, in his article “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste” just listening to other languages alerts us to the rhythms of our own. Here are his exact words:

Let the candidate fill his mind with the finest cadences he can discover, preferably in a foreign language, so that the meaning of the words may be less likely to divert his attention from the movement; e.g. Saxon charms, Hebridean Folk Songs, the verse of Dante, and the lyrics of Shakespeare—if he can dissociate the vocabulary from the cadence. Let him dissect the lyrics of Goethe coldly into their component sound values, syllables long and short, stressed and unstressed, into vowels and consonants.

This sensibility also leads me to embrace, rather than cluck-cluck, over pidgins, creoles, regionalisms, and dialects. We can learn much from them, too, and listen for the clues they give us about people with different life experiences from our own.

It’s important to respect and remember our roots, but there is little harm in stretching the seemingly rigid perimeters once in a while, and seeing where the bends take us.

{Stella Lemper-Tabatsky helped me put this post together and find the fun links.}

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