The Idiocy of "Grammar Nazis"
Occasionally, someone who knows of my academic pedigree — a doctorate in rhetoric — but not of me assumes I cringe at the presumed deformation of our language by the youths and their apps and such. In such an understanding, I probably belong to a group who pridefully call themselves "grammar Nazis" — a most horrific, idiotic phrase.
First of all, its unabashed pride in such a self-designation suggests they believe that while the Nazis chose the wrong object — namely, killing Jews — their commitment to rules is impressive and worth emulating. When, of course, it's precisely commitment to rules that leads to the slaughtering of others.
And then there's the fact that grammar is not a set of laws that hover above language, legislating its every utterance. For where and how could such laws exist? That is, how could laws of grammar legislate from outside language when they are necessarily articulated by and within language — that is, by particular people of a particular place and time, hence undermining their claims to be universal laws of language? For those who care about such things, this is the logic of Jacques Derrida's deconstruction: any claims to be outside a system remain of that same system — so have no inherent ability or right to legislate universally (one way to see this is that the stater of rules always has an agenda as part of the mix they're legislating). Every law that dictates the use of language is itself a use of language — and whence those rules?
There is No Outside. Grammar is immanent.
Language is always already used, even if no one per se owns it. It flows in us, through us: we are its dummies and its inventors. It's us and not us (this is fodder for another essay at another time). There's no way to stop the use of language for a minute and excuse ourselves from its fray in order to legislate its use. We can say this or that is a rule of language — but that is just another voice speaking. And whence its rules of rules? Rules are always already emerging, always changing, relative to the bodies they consider — meanwhile, those bodies are themselves always emerging and changing. Rules and bodies inflect each other. Neither comes first; neither comes second. Rules are immanent.
Anyway, I deeply love the relentless invention of language at the site of its everyday use. While I've thought and written about this for decades, this fact — this endlessly inventive way of language — becomes more apparent every day as I age. I understand very little of what people post on the Twitter and Facebook. No doubt, this comes from my willful ignorance of our times; I don't know much about what people call politics or celebrities so I miss the references. But my failure to understand these tweets is not due to my ignorance of their referents as much as it's due to the fact that this language has new way of making sense. The how, not just the what, is always changing.
As I lead a reclusive life, the language I understand is, at this point, an older language. I have not been party to its unabashed reinvention — a process that has been accelerated by the ever increasing velocity of global communication. People write and read each other all the time — at near infinite speed. Tweets, texts, posts, podcasts, blogs, vlogs, comments, emojis, retweets: we communicate more than ever and with people outside our immediate geography. New rules, new words, new senses are being created on the fly all the time.
Let's Go, Hard: Repetition as Invention
I'm walking with my son the other day, a constitutional after our respective days of video school and work. I was talking about fun things I used to with my friends when I was his age — 17 — to which he'd reply, Let's go. The first time I stopped as I thought he wanted to go somewhere. But his tone and delivery suggested something else — not phatic (phatic discourse is an utterance that keeps communication open but doesn't declare anything per se — um, what was I gonna say?, ahhh are all examples of phatic discourse) but a discursive tic signaling appreciation à la the well worn, Cool. So I kept talking and, every once in a while, he'd utter this understated yet emphatic Let's go.
I had never heard him say this. His go-to is usually, That's hard. I love hard in this sense so much: it speaks to the mode, the tone, of the duration and its affect. For what, precisely, is hard in this situation? It's not the object of discussion which, more often than, is the dropping (I know that one! I love the architectural space of "dropping" an album; it's so much more beautiful that "releasing") of some new track or an outfit such as, say, a Fila tracksuit. Both those things are hard but not because they themselves are materially hard. No, what's hard is the way those things blaze a trail through life, through the miasmic drone of the everyday, pushing aside nonsense thanks to the fortitude of their constitution, their hardness. Hard, too, is the mode of the affect he himself is feeling — it may be elation or desire but, either way, it's coming in hard, not soft, not gentle, not ambivalent: hard. Hard moves with purpose, cutting through the noise.
Let's go is of another order, another tenor, of discourse. It de-emphasizes the object under discussion and privileges the interlocutor's enthusiasm instead. So he'd never say let's go about a song. That'd be ridiculous. The song may be hard; such is one of its qualities. Let's go speaks to the experience of his companion. His friend says, I love that song! It's hard! To which my boy might reply, Let's go. it declares his willing participation in the joy of his interlocutor: I want to enjoy your enjoyment — let's go there! What an outstanding invention!
People invent language all the time. We are all poets, to some degree, some of us more than others. But, for all of us, language is a living beast that is continually morphing. There is no one language. In fact, we might say that there is no language per se (this was the argument of my dissertation; I suggested we replace what we call language — a set of rules based on signification — with rhetoric, an always situated event of communication). All there are are people talking and writing and communicating and failing to communicate or failing to communicate what they thought they wanted to communicate. Some of those people occasionally decide to write books laying down the rules of this language. But those are just more words being written and spoken and, unfortunately, taught. These books of rules don't leave this realm of speaking and writing, suddenly levitate to become law over all uses of language. No, these rule books are just so much more language on the same plane as as the rest of language. There is no outside: Il n'y a pas de hors-texte, as Derrida writes.
We're all in this stew of language. We are of it. We reach for sounds, words, gestures as we reach for an itch (or so says the great French philosopher and phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty). Our bodies, our lives, are metabolic engines of linguistic creation and memetic repetition. Sometimes, we are inflection points, taking up words, gestures, ideas that we find and discover other possibilities in them before we send them back into the world, changed. The French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, calls this repetition.
Repetition is not the same thing. If it were in fact the same thing, it would alas be the same thing, not another thing — and hence not a repetition. I know that sounds sophistic (an odd pejorative, I must admit, as I consider myself a sophist). But the movement within the argument is, precisely, movement: it introduces time into logic, change into the way of things. Repetition is an action, an event, in and of time. Repetition happens, an act of transformation within the trajectory of this or that without any transgression of an original. (I have a friend who I hope is reading this who's always confused at why I talk about repetition. This is why: it provides a logic of identity without allegiance to an original, a true. Repetition inaugurates delirium, vertigo, as the ground gives way — but maintains form.)
Repetition is, in a sense, the clinamen in an atom's trajectory (I take that from Lucretius; I highly recommend reading his "On the Nature of Things"), the swerve of difference, sending that word, gesture, idea along a different trajectory than the one it was on: a turn — not a break. It's still that word, that gesture, that idea — only it's anew, going down a different path (perhaps a mutation, perhaps an expression of DNA: does it matter?).
For example, people say let's go in such and such a way, usually using it to mean: "Let us leave here and go to that place." No doubt, it's been used sarcastically — School? Yeah, let's go there. Not. And then it was used by my son-poet-artist to mean: let's go to that place of your joy which may not, in fact, be a place at all but a mode of enjoyment. A turn, not a break. And not the same thing, quite. A repetition
Repetition is an Event
Repetition is an action, an event. Consider a classical music score, say, Sibelius' "Violin Concerto" (which I was fortunate to hear, and see, performed at San Francisco's Davies Hall). Every time it's played, it's at once the same thing and a different thing — a repetition. And this is what's essential to understand: Nothing is essential! All the versions of that Sibelius Violin Concerto aren't judged against an original or true one. Which would that even be? All there are are versions. Which doesn't mean some aren't better than others. Of course some suck and some are great and most have some good parts and some crappy parts but for our discussion that's neither here nor there. Ontological equality isn't aesthetic or moral equality. Doy.
Doy has enjoyed great longevity in my life. It was part of my vocabulary, even if rarely used, for decades and decades. Heck, I still use it. Although that might be the very first time I've used, or written, heck. Eeesh! I do love a good eeesh, too, with or without an exclamation point. What I love about doy and eesh is that they make no significant pretenses at all — they don't claim to be words signifying anything. Both doy and eesh are discrete packages of reactive affect: of astonishment at one's stupidity and cringing due to all kinds of things, respectively.
Language is always being reinvented from the inside out — that is, not by someone outside of language but by someone in a moment doing something new with a word or phrase or construction. Language is always emerging, always morphing, at different speeds in different places and in different ways. The dialects that spin up over the interwebs happen so swiftly and behind the backs of me and most people I know. Meanwhile, my language plods along, slowly, for better and worse.
To Cum or Come?
I like when I am confronted with a new word — which is more likely not a new word per se (a neologism) but a new use of a word, a new possibility of how that word can go. We've seen this happen to literally and random: they simply, or not so simply, mean new things today to people under 40.
Here's a twist on a word that I've been torn on: cum or come? I can never decide. There's something compelling about cum. The hard c that is not as inhumanly hard as k, the c's curvature softer than k's angularity; then on on to that u with its guttural lack of discretion (it's visually unbound on top and phonically unbound, lacking a consonant to end its groan — uuuuuuuuu); and u is certainly not liquid — it's no s, for instance — its body suggesting greater viscosity (s winds, slithering; u moves slower, siting contently, all bulging belly and unabashedly open for more; and then ending with an m that never really ends — or, better, ends with breath's end much as the declared yum before a bowl of steaming pho could be written, with little argument from an editor, yummmmmm.
Come, on the other hand, seems too uptight for the task at hand (especially during this pandemic). The closure of the o stands in stark contract to cum's unbound u. And that final e serves no purpose other than to quiet the moans of the m; it doesn't even do its admittedly mystical and downright acrobatic job of elongating the o before the m. That takes some finagling! But in come, that e is nothing but a buzzkill. Comb is a better word for cum than come, minus the o that's suddenly elongated by a b of all things. Shouldn't comb be pronounced cum while come should be pronounced comb?
Anyway, I realize now my only hesitation writing cum is that it smacks of porn-speak. But so what? I am a fan of porn but, even were I not, I am a fan of dialects, of what Deleuze and Guattari call "minor languages," inhabiting one language with your own, remaking it from the inside, as the inside. And cum is a good reinvention, a good repetition, inspired. Cum it is, then!
(It's funny to me how weird public discourse is about sex in general and about pornography in particular. Should I not have written about cum? Why, exactly, is it verboten to discuss? Major search engines don't even try to autofill for you if you type a word it associates with sex acts. Type anything else into your search bar — just an accent aigu, ´ — and Google jumps to attention, eager to make suggestions! But type cum or even fellatio and it draws a blank — not because you've stymied its intelligence but because it's made a judgement. Porn, it seems, is beneath it. Yes, it gives you returns on your search (driven by profit motive, of course) but it's not lending a helping hand — not because it can't but because it chooses not to. What a douche.)
Grammar Is Anything You Can Get Away With
Those who insist on certain rules of grammar, on meanings staying the same, are great enemies of life. And they're dangerous as they drape themselves in sanctimony. The rules of grammar provide the weak a weapon to bludgeon others with (hence their oddly gleeful self-designation as Nazis!).
Grammar, I want to suggest, is whatever you can get away with (pace Marshall McLuhan's "art is anything you can get away with").
This is not to say that there's no such thing as grammar. Of course there's grammar. Grammar is the way words go with each other to make sense — adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, punctuation, verb and pronoun inflection. But sense is multiple and always changing, as are words, so grammar is multiple and always changing, too. Grammar is not a set of rules but modes of operation for this complex, ever-morphing organism we call language. Rather than grammar being a cage of communication, let's see it — let's think it and teach it — as a mechanism of creation, of invention, of new senses, of new ways of making sense.
Mind you, just because it's new and creative doesn't mean we have to like it. And just because something's old doesn't mean we should keep or abandon it. I return to the sophist's creed: the right thing at the right time. And that always depends, as is the way of kairos. We don't need some set of agreed-to rules. Make your own sense.