On Language, Texting, & Being

I can speak some French. I took it all through school but learned it mostly when writing my dissertation which involved several French books that were, at the time, not yet translated. And for the books that were translated, I read the French not for accuracy per se but to get a sense for the writing — its style, its rhythm, its mode of being. 

Now, I love translations. I find the act of translation as amazing and erotic (such intimacy with another) as it is impossible (however actual). Nevertheless, the two books side by side — one in English, the other in French — are two different characters.

Anyway, at that point, my French wasn't terrible (this was 15 years ago).  But I refused to speak it. Uttering the words contorted my body, and my self, in ways that just never felt right. Even before hearing the words leave my mouth, as my mind and throat and mouth twisted and pleated to mutter, "Oui, et tu?" everything in me would begin to recoil as if I'd ingested some poison.

We imagine, perhaps, that language is a tool much as, say, a hammer is. I want to express myself so I grab this or that word and, voilĂ , I've communicated.

But that's not how language works. Language inhabits us, infiltrating our thoughts and bodies, coercing ideas and movements, choreographing our experiences. This is why William Burroughs calls language a virus: it lives in us, it needs us, it feeds on us.  No, language is not a tool: it is a miasmatic, hegemonic control force.

And each language is different, asks different things of us — the French tu wants something different from me than the German du and, in the process, makes something different of me. In college, my friend Matthew took the intro to several languages. In each class, students chose a name in the language of that class and Matt, to get in character, chose a different name for each. Walking through campus with him was strange as random students would address him alternately as Wolfgang, Wang, Esteban, Pierre, Achmed. 

When I was in grad school, I had to prove proficiency in two languages so, other than French, I chose classical Greek.  Or, rather, I tried to.

Berkeley has these language workshops over the summer. The Greek workshop is, in very small, nerdy circles, legendary.  The class meets six hours a day, five days a week, for 10 weeks. That's not so bad until you take into consideration the homework — it takes another 4-6 hours a day. I, of course, didn't believe them when they told me this. If they say 4-6, they really mean around two hours, maybe. I've always been fast like that.

Oh, was I wrong. Classical Greek is a beast of, well, mythological proportions, endlessly inflected with only general rules to guide you. So you simply have to memorize them all (simple, yes; easy, no — a crucial distinction). And it tore me asunder. In three days. At the end of which, I found myself on a curb, weeping. I'm not kidding. The language wanted all of me. It was literally killing me. So I took German — four hours a day, five days a week, eight weeks. And about an hour of homework. Really.

Now, after Greek, German was easy. Still, I found it exceedingly difficult to speak — not because it's a hard language but because I couldn't find myself in it. It wanted me to be something else, someone else. As the class involved a lot of conversation, this posed a particular challenge for me.

So I let the German wind through me until it found a voice. And what it found, to this day, surprises me: it found some fey, Weimar, proto-SS gay dude. All semester, I spoke German in this demented drawl verging on falsetto. My classmates, I assume, loathed me — and rightfully so. I'm not sure where it even came from — some distant memory of watching Cabaret?

Which brings me to textese — that language of abbreviation, icons, and emoticons: LOL, brb, ppl, diff, probly, u.  Now, I love much of this language. Or, rather, I love that this language exists, that one language has been distributed by a technology and birthed a new language, a language within the language. But of course that's all language is: lots of little languages (Deleuze and Guattari might call these "minor" languages).

There are people who mock and disdain textese as some sort of bastardization or dumbing down. That's absurd and, well, stupid. There is no such thing as "real" language. So much of the so-called grammatical rules are arbitrary or, rather, ideological. They try to keep subjects in their place and everything qualified just so with nothing left to dangle. So-called proper English is uptight, antiquated bourgeois English.  It's meant to be broken, tweaked, distorted for other ends and purposes. Enter textese.

And yet I refrain from "speaking" this minor language. I type out "you" and "people" and "probably." I don't write, LOL. I write, "That's hilarious."  At least usually I do.  I have found that occasion has demanded something different so I've been know to write, "Ha!" Which is my attempt at finding myself amidst these currents of SMS. 

My resistance is neither ideological nor aesthetic. I have no moral problem with textese and I find much of its patois charming. No, I can't do it for the same reason I can't speak French: textese wants me to be something, to be someone, I am not. A 23 year old girl? A high school dude from Fremont? I don't know. But I do know that it has yet to find a place within me.

And so, perhaps foolishly, I am left typing the language of textese's more formal forefathers. But such is my character: I like to sprawl, to whisper asides, to carry on in would-be purple splendor. And textese, for all its charms, will not have none of that. Alas, then, I speak what I am. And vice versa.


Andrew Marshall said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Marshall said...

Beautiful post, really this post is poetry. In a few words the post captures a clear to see perspective. This perspective matches up with my experience of language.
In detail: I suppose I too have difficulty accepting "LOL" and prefer "HA!" when texting. My guess is that "Ha!" just better expresses the outburst of surprise or enjoyment that I feel. I am thinking that I feel this way as I have sat next to someone who texted LOL-all the while they remained totally placid. My HA! is an outburst in itself. "Ha!" means nothing beyond the expression, I am not saying that I am laughing, rather that, if you were here, I might have laughed.
I also love how you put it to those who judge others based on failures on Grammar. My ex-roommate would whine about the people on TV using any idiosyncratic expressions, the "Ghetto talk" being chief on his list. I always go with what they were trying to express. I have a great deal of charity. Charity in that I am willing to allow a great deal of ways for people to express themselves. There are so many inner states! To him, my ex-roommate they fail to be Grammatical. It's as if every reality TV character is interviewing for a job with him or some other formal situation. Life is not a formal dance. Codes of language are personal and show your ability to adapt. The point is not the words as much as its the intent. The words are style. I appreciate your style, esp. in this-here-blog-thingy, thank you, sir!

Daniel Coffeen said...

Andrew, I love your take on Ha — it is visceral, immediate. LOL is creepily disengaged, you're right.

But I'm not sure it's the intent that matters. I love the words — all the different ways people put them together. Sure, all those inner states are beautiful. But I can't see those, enjoy those. But I can enjoy all those outer states, all those different inflections on the same word, all those different ways of making sense.

Thanks for piping in, truly.