Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Making Language a Two-Way Street

Three pieces which recently crossed my path have me picking up an old saw.

Actually, this is really in response to Timothy Burke's post. And I'm not even going to really disagree with him. So you can see that this post is going to be a powerhouse of controversy.

Anyway, while reading Timothy Burke's post, his tone struck me as all too familiar - Burke appears to be implying that it is up to the educated to cross that cultural divide between blue and white collars, to hold our champagne glasses (note reflexive use of "us" here - hmmmm) out in the hopes that they will be clinked with the domestic beer cans of the less literate. (Sorry, I have to be a little cheeky, this is a blog.)

But what about looking at things in the other direction? What about say, ensuring that people who don't go to university have a smattering of knowledge about the arts and culture? (This, of course, betrays another assumption, that the plumber in the sports cap knows nothing about arts and culture. hmmmm...)

Actually, I don't want to go down that road today. So how about this - Why don't we, as er, a society (of english-speakers), try to ensure that people of all walks of life can speak (standard?)english well. More accurately, how about we ensure that they can converse well. (I'm not diminishing dialects here. Dialects are fine, perhaps it's time we took a page from the Germans and accepted a high-low version of language instead of trying to squish things into the oozy egalitarian-but-not-really mess we English speakers appear so culturally inclined toward.)

Now I know many of you will balk at this, but I submit for you a people who support my idealistic assertion: The Irish.

Has anyone ever noticed that nearly every man and woman raised on the Emerald Isle is well able to converse on a variety of subjects? That they, by and large, and irrspective of class, speak English better than everyone else on the planet?

I suspect the reason for this is obvious - they really beat English into them. Ask an Irishman or woman how much they read in school, and it will blow your mind. Ask them what they were expected to know, and, if you are a North American, your mind will be blown.

So I suppose what I am getting at is that it can be done, it being getting everyone to be able to speak well, or at least commensurably. However, this wasn't entirely Mr. Burke's point, was it?

Not really, his point was really about class, that one class, the educated one, needs to be even more educated, this time in speaking to the less educated. But wouldn't it be better, for all of us, and here I'm repeating myself, if we could turn this on its head?

One can even point to a time where North Americans still believed it possible to educate and cultivate the average citizen - Does anyone know of the Little Blue Books? So why not? What stops us (North Americans) from simply trying to educate everyone to an extent that renders the kind of issues Mr. Burke raises irrelevant?

Again, I think the issue is Culture, and I think it's the same reasons why high culture is disparaged with such ease while the well-educated are worried about how "normal" they are when it comes to speaking with the masses.

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