“Why,” I ask my introductory composition class as I hold up an ordinary writing implement for their perusal,“do we who speak English call this a pen and not a frying pan?”
Panic-stricken looks appear on the faces of two dozen first-year college students who are struggling to navigate their first days of classes, and who are now looking at each other and wondering whether there is a secret campus code that no one bothered to inform them about.
We sit in silence for a while until eventually someone calls out, “Uh, because that’s what we were told?”
“Exactly!” I say. Two dozen first-year college students breathe sighs of relief.
But I am not finished with them. “Now suppose,” I continue, “that you are having a quiz and the instructor tells you to put away your books and take out a frying pan and some paper?”
Still not sure what to make of the person in front of the room, students gaze at the ceiling for inspiration. I prod them a bit. “Knowing that you had to write for a quiz, would you pick up a pen regardless of the instructor’s actual words?”
A discussion ensues. Those who favor picking up the pen note that what matters is the context — a quiz requires the use of a pen, and they’re figuring that the instructor was either absent-minded or just plain weird. On the other side, students assert that they would ask for clarification before acting. After all, if the words don’t comport with common sense, how can they be expected to know how to proceed?
I haven’t taught introductory composition for a while now, but I return often to the “Why is this a pen?” question when I think about and discuss in other classes an important truth about language: It is, at its core, a series of arbitrary agreements.
And since that little incident with the Tower of Babel resulted in well over 6000 languages in the world, those agreements are legion, and as varied as the geography they cover. A few examples: English nouns use only one case ending (“case” is the word used to describe the grammatical relationship of nouns and pronouns to other words in a sentence); that case is the possessive, which we make by adding an apostrophe and the letter “s” (the cat’s whiskers). Modern Greek has four, while Finnish has over a dozen cases. English locates situations and actions in time by conjugating verbs — using verb tenses (you walk, you walked, you will walk, and so on). Mandarin Chinese has no verb tenses, and instead uses numerous other signifiers for the timing of actions.
Nouns are gendered in many language but not in English. The gendering of nouns seems particularly arbitrary to English speakers. (While “pen” and “frying pan” are feminine nouns in both French and Spanish, for instance, “pencil” and “bowl” are masculine nouns in those language. Go figure!). While English has only one tone that serves as a grammatical indicator (the rising voice pitch that indicates a question), many African and Asian languages use multiple tones for grammatical purposes.
Hearing that language is a series of arbitrary agreements sometimes briefly lulls students into thinking that I won’t be too hard on the grammar, structure, spelling, and diction in their papers, and will instead correct and grade only for “meaning.”
They are disabused of this notion the moment their first papers are returned to them.
The other truth about language — and what I really want to teach them — is that it is a remarkable tool. Breath from our lungs, shaped by our teeth and tongues, can delight or infuriate those closest to us. Squiggles on pages can open us to understanding lives and facts and theories. Like any tool, language can be used with varying degrees of competence. In some people’s hands, it can re-order the world.
Understanding the philosophical concept of language as an arbitrary series of agreements does not relieve us of the obligation of knowing and applying those agreements in the languages we ourselves use, particularly when we write. Speech allows us to communicate meaning with gestures, facial expressions, voice tone and volume, movement, moments of silence. As a professional writer myself, I am acutely aware that on the page — or the screen — our ideas are conveyed only in the words, and the grammatical structures that contain them.
I caution my students about all this before that first batch of papers goes back to them. “Remember,” I tell them, “that I can understand and evaluate what you are writing only by the words you choose, and the order you put them in. Your job is to make sure that what is on the page is what you mean; there is no place else for the reader to go.”
Volumes have been written about what makes good writing, and outlining yet another set of rules is not my purpose here. Rather, I leave you with this bit of insight from Mark Twain: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”