Year of a Hundred Things – “Thing” #75 – Language

A few years ago, my family took a trip to Cozumel for a birthday celebration. Having grown up in a Spanish-speaking family, I thought it would be rather easy to communicate while in Mexico, but in the end, having had for years no one with whom to practice the bastardized Tampa Spanglish I learned, my Spanish is now spotty, at best. So, in trying to communicate in Spanish, I frequently made a mess of the truly beautiful language it is, and comically put myself in some precarious situations.

For example, I responded “¡Soy caliente!” to a lovely, “¿Como está, Señorita?” from the towel-attendant at the beach. He chuckled. “Sí, hay mucho calor, hoy,” he responded. Now, if you know any Spanish, you understand that we were discussing the weather. But it took me a moment to realize that he chuckled at my phrasing. I asked, knowing how badly I butcher Spanish these days, what I could do to be more exact. He said, in perfect English, “You meant to say ‘It is hot,’ but you said, ‘I am hot’ as though complimenting yourself on your attractiveness. While you are lovely,” – yes, he said that – “I think you meant to say you feel hot from the weather.” We laughed, heartily, and I thanked him for his kind lesson on Spanish. He didn’t make me feel small, or insulted. I took the opportunity to better learn how to communicate with the citizens whose hospitality I enjoyed for four days.

Why? Because it was the right thing to do.

I have worked in other countries, short term. On those rare, wonderful occasions, I had not the time to learn to communicate well in their native language, which I regretted for two reasons. (1) I do not expect that they should have to learn my language to accommodate me on their soil, and (2) learning many languages expands our understanding of the nuances of communication.

Now, having expressed how I feel about this, imagine how appalled I was to read that a journalist in the UK has decided that correcting grammar is both racist and a sign of “white privilege” because it inhibits the ability for “the poor” to communicate. I’m curious, because I grew up poor and bilingual, why she thinks that only the English correct grammar. My Abuela corrected my Spanish, constantly. My mother is a voracious reader. Her father, the eldest son of Sicilian immigrants, read constantly in English, Spanish and Italian. He spoke all three languages beautifully and correctly. These were my role models.

I’m a grammarphile but not because of some lofty sense of privilege. It’s because I believe in clarity, and in the power of meaning. And in a small way, I love the mechanics of the kind of sentence structure that evokes a visceral response from my reader. A good sentence is sexy.

Sunday, I had just read the article written by the aforementioned journalist, and I happened across the only five minutes of Game of Thrones that I had the opportunity to watch as I went about cleaning the kitchen. In the scene, Tyrion Lannister attempts to give charity to a woman so that she can feed her baby, but in Valerian he says “for your baby,” from which she inferred that he wanted to buy her baby. A simple error in phrasing and the meaning was entirely changed from charity to cannibalism. Note that I did not say “that I could watch” instead of “had the opportunity to watch.” Considering the regular violence on Game of Thrones, there are many scenes for which the first phrase would apply, but that is not what I MEANT in this case.

The fact is, if you don’t apply grammatical rules in ANY language, your meaning can be misinterpreted to such an extent that you could possibly insult the person to whom you speak. In fact, it happens often. I’ve seen discussions in social media decompose into vicious attacks because of misinterpretations that could easily have been solved by simple punctuation. The number of times I’ve read “that’s not what I meant” simply confounds me. The thing is, English has a lexicon of 450,000+ words. It’s not an easy language to learn. But if you genuinely want to be heard, and UNDERSTOOD, you have to accept that using proper grammar will help you achieve that end. In contrast, if you want to be genuinely innovative with meaning, you have to know the rules you are creatively breaking.

I think it’s deplorable when one attacks another publicly for improper usage, even if in response to something combative. It furthers the idea that privilege, or arrogance, is always the motive. I have been tempted, especially when I’ve read responses that have devolved into personal attacks. But even in opposition, meaning must be clear, or your argument is lost the moment your reader trips over the first missing comma.

Finally, if you do want to work on grammar and meaning, and better learn how to express yourself, I highly recommend a book called “Sin and Syntax” by Constance Hale. She takes an “out of the box” approach to illustrating how subtle changes can lead to much better communication. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing or saying, but it matters greatly whether you are understood.