Monday, February 05, 2007

On Language

The genesis of the following post, for those of you keeping track of invention, arrangement and revision strategies at home, is multifaceted. That's grad-student speak for "I've been ruminating over some ideas, based on other ideas already floating around, and now I'm not sure how to introduce this topic which is only tangentially related to this other stuff."

So, to quote Inigo Montoya, "I 'splain. No, there is too much. I sum up."

You know what? No. Even summing up is taking this places it oughtn't go. To one-under Montoya, I'll just allude. How's that?

These be-phudded people got into a conversation about the state of the field of Old English studies, and the people with Y-chromosomes among that cohort got a batch of language bees in their bonnets. And they said "language language language," and then the people with matching alleles said "There's other stuff too, and here's why." And then the mismatching alleles ones said "language, and here's why." And then the whole conversation, which looked like it might get really interesting and productive, just petered out. I hate that. (They didn't align themselves by gender; I did that. I'm not sure that there's a connection between the sex of the critic and his/her view of what must be studied in this case. Just seemed odd -- and perhaps noteworthy? -- that it fell that way.)

At the same time, but unrelatedly, Anhaga wrote a rather beautiful post about The Wanderer, which is my very favorite go-to poem for almost-ineffable melancholy. I mean that in a good way, of course. I love melancholy, especially when it's of the sort that sits right at the edge of human language's ability to codify it.

Then I was reading a blog entitled "Slouching Towards Extimacy" and I thought, "Geez, extimacy is a great word. Neologisms can be fun. I love great new words. Wait, I love great old words, too."

So, as you can see, I was chased through blog-readings right into the Old English - Planctus -Language - Cool Words nexus, quite without intending to get here. It's not exactly a Lorelei Gilmore "monkey, monkey, underpants" moment, but it'll do.

Now, once in the OE-P-L-CW Nexus, I began listing the really old words I find cool:
Cwaeth was there, but you had to know that
gefrunon is a big one, love that one (meaning asked and/or understood, but also suggesting having learned something through hearing)
beot...vow, very nice
gliwstafum (joyful speech, literally: glee-letters. I ADORE this word.)
larcwide .. teaching words

You do see where this is going?

The words the Anglo-Saxons had for language are as much fun for me as the approximately 473 words they had for sorrow. I'm fairly certain that this is not simply because I'm a language nerd, although that must help. The ways in which the Anglo-Saxons foregrounded language in their writing/composing has always been interesting for me. Well, sure, they were either composing in language or recording spoken words, so language was their medium. However, their rhetorical choices of when and how to reference language, and to what end, are infinitely fascinating to me.

The Wanderer, for one, uses references to language rather ingeniously. He seeks those in whom he can confide, he looks back wistfully at the kind and wise words of his lost lord, he imagines the words he would use if he encountered his lord again. Like anhaga, I have some trouble reconciling the sundor aet rune moment at the end with the remainder of the poem, because it is the first time the Wanderer is alone with language. Every other reference to language has been about the value of language to the community. Who ought to speak, and who ought not to speak, for the best interests of the community. Bjork argues, famously, that the Wanderer's exile is voluntary at that moment. I'm not quite sure I agree with that assessment, because it seems pretty clear to me that the Wanderer is arguing for inclusion, all throughout the poem, based upon his inclusion and favored status in the past, and based upon his special knowledge of the suffering of loss. In fact, he seems to turn the whole system on its ear, suggesting stating outright that those who have not suffered as he has speak too much, and that those like him ought to be privileged speakers rather than suspected ones.

Rhetorically, he's quite good, that Wanderer. I am OK because I used to be valued, and now I've lost all the people who valued me, and therefore I'm OK because I've suffered and know better. You young folk talk too much, and know too little.


J J Cohen said...

Nice post. I hadn't noticed the gendering of the debate ... interesting observation. Does that gendering have any particular meaning? Do you find it at all surprising?

Anniina said...

Great post! I like how gliwstafum sounds - it's one of those words you can taste.

Anonymous said...

Hey Folks,

This is Heo. Blogger Redux is refusing to let me comment on my own blog just at the moment, so this will be the trial 'anonymous' comment before I actually answer.

Anonymous said...

Huzzah, I can sneak in and crash the blog! Go me. (Just so you know this is really, really Heo, I'll use the secret password ... Crap! Somebody make up a secret password, quick! Um, how about fracod?)

Now, back to business.

JJC - Honestly, the gendering of the debate was something I just sort of threw out there to see if anyone else saw it, or thought it relevant.

And I do know that it was somewhat out-there to frame the discussion by gender, and I did consult a friend about getting myself out of the hole I just dug. Following his advice, my official word on the subject is "that wasn't me. That was a porn spammer. Move along, folks, nothing to see here."

Back to my unofficial word.
Those who chose to write a post on the topic seemed to be divided into two camps (super-simplified): women scholars who think the field is heading in the right -- or a good -- direction, and men scholars who think it should change course a bit.

For the record, I practically jumped out of my chair and cheered when I read EJ's answer to the men's suggestions. So I am not unbiased in this discussion.

Anyway, these men seem eager to see the field return to its previous focus on linguistic aspects of the corpera. In both cases, the men argue that this change will show what English departments can do that other departments can't. I'm not so sure I buy that. They may want a return to the respect they feel workers in this field had at one time, but changing back to the scholarship of that time won't accomplish that, I don't think.

It's my belief that literature departments in general, and Anglo-Saxonists in particular are being marginalized because we are not able to translate our work easily to the corporate context. In fact, our work often directly challenges corporate mentality. Especially if we consider language and literature as markers of a broader culture, all of which must be considered to the extent that we can consider it.

Now here's me being sexist: Women, particularly, have experience with being marginalized and told that we can't be other than marginalized because...our work is not valuable, or not difficult, or not meaningful, or, or, or...

We also have experience with shifting goalposts. Or we know a woman we'd like to be just like when we grow up who had those experiences. So, I think, women literature scholars may be more willing/able, on average, to take the slings and arrows of outrageous engineers suggesting that our work is not (insert favorite word here) enough to count without changing course to please those folks, and make that charge go away. Because we know that changing course will only change the specific words in the chatter coming at us, but not their meaning or their tone.

The men appear to be trying to fix something that may not need fixing, and may not be fixable. After all, English programs never were profitable enterprises. However, when they were training camps for social stasis, they were funded like mad and respected, if always in that 'elbow patches' way.

For example, a quote roughly contemporary with the rise of English as a subject of study tells us quite openly why capital-L Literature was EVER considered worthwhile.

“The lower classes ought to be educated to discharge the duties cast upon them. They should be educated that they might appreciate and defer to a higher cultivation when they meet it, and the higher classes ought to be educated in a very different manner, in order that they may exhibit to the lower classes that higher education to which, if it were shown to them, they would bow down and revere.” Robert Lowe, Primary and Classical Education, 1867

If we aren't willing to go back to that, if we aren't willing to consider English departments simply training grounds for elitist jackasses, then we are not as 'important' to many in the world as we once were. Even if, especially if, we give students something more valuable than indoctrination into the status quo.

And I do think that women have life experiences that make them better able to understand that.

And yes, I am aware of the irony of my saying this to JJ Cohen. But I did have to try to defend my outrageous framing somewhat.

Bah, I'm going to go drink now.

Glad you agree with me re: gliwstafum.


HeoCwaeth said...

And, now, after a week, and I finally gave up and posted under anonymous the !@#$%^& thing lets me on as me.


I am Heo Cwaeth, and I approve the previous two messages.

Eileen Joy said...

Hello Heo Cwaeth,

just popping in to say, "interesting post!" and also to apologize that I kind of single-handedly let that other discussion peter out [because, after all, both Drout and Nokes wrote very spirited and carefully considered rejoinders to my posts]. To be honest, I had to get an essay collection to press, and that just took over my brain and writing hands for a while. I don't know about the gender aspects of the debate, as, in Anglo-Saxon studies anyway, sometimes the women can be just as conservative as the men and vice versa, and some of the most innovative scholars, like Allen Frantzen, are men [okay, he's *gay* but still]. Nevertheless, I would agree that there is a kind of masculinist politics at work in defending "tradition" and also in arguing that our work has a "science-ism" to it that makes us valuable to English departments. You are right on, in my opinion, in making the argument that the real work that needs to be done in Old English studies is in *linking* and *connecting* the subjects of our study with other subjects and intellectual concerns that matter to more than just other OE scholars. The work of grad. students such as Anhaga give me hope. If we can have more scholars who are thinking about "Wanderer" while also thinking about E.M. Forster [Anhaga], and they can convey why/how medieval and contemporary texts can speak to each other and to our own modern condition, then we will be okay.

HeoCwaeth said...

Hi Eileen,

Thanks for commenting. As I said to JJC, the gender thing was really me trying to understand how and why the divide happened. It wasn't meant to be an assertion so much as a question. Also, I tend to read things as gender

sexy said...