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Do you believe in signs?

You know, those little objects or encounters or symbols that life keeps throwing at you until you stop and pay attention, and try to figure out just what it all means? As though the universe were conspiring to teach you a lesson? I have a good friend who’s had this experience with feathers appearing by her feet in a bunch of different locations, week after week. Kind of spooky, right? And I’ve got another friend who kept encountering acorns; she came to learn that they’re a symbol of “strength, potential, immortality, power, and growth,” and made them a very significant symbol of her charitable organization. I think their stories are pretty cool, but that’s just an opinion. There is, however, also a fact that we can discover in these examples, and others like them, and here it is: human minds seek meaning. We look for meaning everywhere; that is the constant aim both of our brains and of our souls.

The obvious place to look for meaning, of course, is words. Words mean things; making meaning is their aim. I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate on my habit of doing just that — looking for meaning in words, and paying attention to see which words keep surfacing for investigation. Regular readers already know that I don’t just look for “meaning in words;” rather, I look for how words make their meaning in writing, and why they make it that way. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at just how liberally the ol’ universe can sprinkle its freaky serendipities into my experiences to make me stop and pay attention. After all, words are everywhere; it’s my job to figure out what they’re trying to tell me.

So I set out to write this post a couple of months ago, confident that that the words that were going to demand my attention for this post were the words <over> and <under>. I even had a great title: “Overcome with Understanding.” Cool, right? I’d picked those words because a few years ago, I’d had an encounter with <over> in an attic in France that, believe it or not, had quite undone me and my previous way of understanding English words. I really was overcome by the experience, and since it happened, I’ve also been able to overcome a lot of foggy misapprehensions about how the language works. In many ways, that encounter changed everything: I already knew a lot about English spelling before I went to France, but THAT, that moment was transfigurative. So this, this stubborn essay, was supposed to be about that encounter, that moment. It was supposed to be about <over>, and it was supposed to tell “my story;” that’s what I set out to write.

The post had asked to be written in conversations with a few friends and colleagues, far more diplomatic and less hotheaded than I, who encouraged me to tell “my story” as a way to, well, soften the sharp blow of my orthographic hammer. Since my own orthographic epiphany in France, I find an abundance of errors and misapprehensions in the work of edubloggers and spelling experts, curriculum designers and literacy researchers — well-known people whose work I never used to question. Now, I write about their errors — not only on LEX, but also in my doctoral writing, in conference presentations, and in private conversations. Many people find this inspiring: they sign on for greater understanding themselves, finding it as transformative of their work as I do, and together we celebrate our growing ability to make sense of spelling.

But not everyone loves what I do: some people find my work to be obnoxious, even going so far as to write truly nasty comments in their conference evaluations and correspondence, like “if she’s so smart, let her find her own mistakes” and “her voice is so grating.” One well-known writing expert recently mentioned me by name in a conference session where I wasn’t in attendance, berating me in absentia for being “out of line” — but not before pulling me aside privately to say, “Gina, if you attend my session, don’t say anything, okay?” I wonder what line I’m supposed to be in? Another spelling expert even implied in a widely-circulated email that I’m just not okay with being human. True story. I’ve been scolded and ignored by experts (usually the same ones who made the mistakes to begin with), complained about behind my back, and kicked off of a listserv with no prior dialogue. No one likes to be wrong, and some people will defend the errors entrenched in their thinking by any means available. In sharp contrast, my current scholarly community — including linguists and teachers, children and adults, eulexics and dyslexics alike — revels in discovering errors because it means uncovering the facts, learning what is real about language, and beholding the shining and revelatory truths that abide in the written language. My fellow orthographic pioneers — especially the friends who counseled this post — value my message enormously, and they want it to be heard. While they admit to finding me wickedly funny, they also say that they’d hate to see my message get muted or ignored because someone reading it might think it sounds mean.

I don’t mean to sound mean.

I thought about this for weeks. And weeks. Then I wrote for days and days — somewhere in there I lost a whole weekend writing about <over> in response to the friendly prompt, and I got nowhere. That whole weekend, minus time for dishes, and family, some homework, and a little sleep, gone, and I had nothing much to show for it. My story just wasn’t agreeing to be told. I mean, I certainly know my story (I went to France to study English spelling and I broke down weeping over <over>), and I’ve written about it before (rather fetchingly, I might add, in a final paper for a doctoral rhetoric seminar, which also contributed to a couple other posts). But as I wrote and wrote that weekend about over and under, nothing gelled. I got some middling prose that I may make use of later, but nothing that resembled a meaningful account of how I came to understand spelling or my role in the spelling world. I went to bed that Sunday barely prepared for the whirlwind of the coming week, feeling fruitless.

So here’s where the universe and its signs come in: I woke up that Monday morning to a new post on an edublog I sometimes read, and which I’ve posted about before. The blogger had blogged about, of all things, <over>, the very four-letter word that had precipitated my Damascene moment in France, when the scales fell from my eyes along with a few big, fat, fiery tears. In her post, the author referred to <over> as a prefix, something that I used to do before I knew better too, and there she was, making use of the same equivocations and “expert” opinions as I used to. She was, as I had been, in very good company: a whole lot of people call <over> a prefix.

I read her blog post, participated in a very worthwhile dialogue about it in the comments (which I strongly recommend reading), and headed out of the house for school and work. In the car (where I spent entirely too much time this past semester) I thought some about how I might be able to make use of the blogospheric coincidence. I thought about how I might write about my own transformative experience, when I had clearly seen how <over> cannot be a prefix, and about how devastated I had been to realize how many people I had misinformed. I thought, for the fiftieth time, about how incandescently frustrated I had been in that orthographic atelier in deepest Gaul, how embarrassed I was to be enraged and weeping in front of my colleagues and my teacher. I thought about how silly and stupid I’d felt: of course <over> was a base. I knew that! It’s a word! A free morpheme! It can’t be a prefix. I’m a linguist, for crying out loud; I understand these things. I never should’ve fallen for it when I first was mistaught <over> and <under> (and <with> and  <by> and <out> and a host of other freestanding bases) as prefixes years ago.

As I drove through my Midwestern landscape that Monday morning, I relived that continental epiphany, and I could just taste a better blog post brewing. I figured that my weekend writing had not really come together because somehow, it was cosmically waiting for a better set-up. I figured that better set-up had come in the form of the comment thread on the edublogger’s post, and I anticipated that it would help me to explain why orthographic truth matters. I crafted explanatory paragraphs in my head, and made some mental notes so I could record my thoughts for LEXterity later on. When I got tired of writing in my head, I turned on the car radio, and left it on, my thoughts still coming in fits and spurts. Before too long, a tune made its way from the radio to my consciousness, in the voice of Sinead O’Connor, that formerly depilated Celtic enchantress. I’d really never paid much attention to the song, though it was familiar to me. By the time I became fully attentive to the song, it was entering its last chorus. Here’s what I heard:

Maybe it sounds mean
but I really don’t think so
you asked for the truth and I told you.
Through their own words
they will be exposed
they’ve got a severe case of
the emperor’s new clothes.

Now, my husband, who has rather varied and wholly impeccable musical tastes, has warned me against becoming the kind of writer who quotes pop songs. And I suppose he’s right. So please, please forgive me for sounding like a lovesick 15-year-old, but this lyric took on all the import of the universe striking again. It was another linguistic feather landing at my feet, an acorn of promise, and I paid attention. As I heard the words, they seemed to be singing right to me. I mean, here I am, in my car, thinking about how I could write this post without sounding mean, and even as I do so, my brain, and my soul, are seeking meaning out there all around me. Even in a corny pop song.

Maybe I sound mean, but I really don’t think so.

I arrived at school, parked the car, and got busy with my week. It never ends, really. There’s family, and school, and work, and spelling — Heavens! I love spelling! There are the many, many conversations and e-conversations I partake in with my orthographic community. So things kept moving through my week, and my brain and my soul continued to search for ways to share a meaningful tale from my past, in order to shed some light on an orthographic future. I did a little thinking, and a little writing — usually both at the same time — but I still couldn’t make a satisfactory article out of <over>.

Well, that’s because the universe wasn’t done with me yet. The following morning, a Tuesday, I took my son to the dentist. Although I had brought homework along, I sat in the waiting area and thumbed through magazines instead, feeling profligate and guilty. Before too long, I lighted on an article by Ricky Gervais, a British comedian who had hosted some awards show or another, and who had written a response to accusations that his hostly humor was — you guessed it — too mean. Some folks had taken offense. I can’t recall much of what he wrote, but I do recall a distinction he made that seemed to my meaning-seeking machine of a mind to be another sign: Gervais responded to his detractors with the claim that offense is a question of feelings, while comedy is an enterprise of the intellect. While I recognize that emotions and intellect are not unrelated, I also think that Gervais is on to something. In Hollywood, when you make a life out of people watching your every move, being roasted for comedic effect is an occupational hazard. Likewise, in science, even in “reading science,” when you make a life out of publishing your findings, being proven wrong is also an occupational hazard.

Gervais’s article called to mind an undergraduate course I had observed for an assignment about a year ago. On the day I observed, the instructor was teaching his students about different types and theories of humor. One theory presented in class involved incongruity: things can seem funny when we discover them to be mismatched, or out of harmony with a paired concept or situation; when the mismatch is made explicit and resolved, we laugh. Another understanding was referred to as superiority theory, which is what might make us snicker when we see someone trip, or when we delight in the misfortunes of others. Superiority theory was even a consideration in classical Greece, where Socrates was roundly pilloried as ugly and filthy by the popular writers of his day. Now that’s mean: critiquing people’s looks or personal hygiene or humanity instead of their work.

When I got home from the dentist, I pulled up my notes from that humor class observation, and I was struck by what I found at the end of the notes: “Humor is a talent that can be learned. It’s useful in dealing with misfortunes or painful incongruities. It allows us to avoid despair.” In other words, humor is something that can help us navigate the interchange between intellect and emotion. Whereas Gervais’s article separated the intellectual exercise of comedy from the emotional exercise of taking offense, I understood humor as the very substance that allows us to move between an emotionally painful experience and a dispassionate intellectual understanding of it.

Now, lest you think that people cannot be driven to despair over spelling, let me make my story perfectly clear here: I work with children with dyslexia, and the people who love and teach them. Spelling, especially in school, is excruciating for them. It stymies their expression. It leaves them feeling stupid, silly, and inadequate. Even adults are vulnerable to condemnation on account of their spelling errors: we’ve all heard tales of the mythical orthographic gatekeepers in human resources departments ready to chuck a job application for a single spelling error. Prior to going to France, I had trained hundreds of teachers and supervised the instruction of hundreds of children. I taught people how spelling worked, or I meant to, anyways. I taught them what I knew, and I knew a lot, but much of what I knew was wrong because it was built upon a fundamental mischaracterization of English spelling as a flawed system of letter-sound correspondences, rather than as the orderly sense-making apparatus I now know it to be. Over the course of my career, I had taught many, many people that <over> and <under> and myriad other prepositions could also be prefixes, as I had been taught.

After a decade of this work, I traveled to France with a cadre of dyslexia colleagues for an orthographic study week. On the second day, I crowed to my colleagues that “a lot of English prefixes are prepositions, like with and under and over.” Our teacher, the Copernicus of English orthography, simply responded with a “hmmm” and a noncommittal sideways nod before continuing with his lesson. He felt no need to correct me there, knowing that I would soon discover the truth myself as the seminar continued. When I finally encountered the clear and logical fact that a morphological element cannot simultaneously be a base and an affix, my reaction was visceral. My gut knotted, my body responded with fire and water, and my affect leaked out of my eyes. I wasn’t crying because I was embarrassed to have been wrong in front of my colleagues; I had been wrong plenty of times during that week and had relished the opportunity to correct my understanding. What enraged and saddened me at that moment was the memory of arguing years earlier during my own training about this very thing. As a linguist, I had protested that words like undertow, withhold, and overdraft were compounds, not complex, because the first element was freestanding. J’ai pleuré because I had had the facts correct once upon a time, and I relinquished them because I bought the party line within my new field. I had changed my mind without even seeing evidence to the contrary. I wept for the facts, for how I had ignored them, and for the truth laid out before me in all its simple glory.

That moment was pivotal. While I can’t claim that I made an explicit decision in that moment, something in me broke right then: the willingness to pass along an understanding about language based on what someone else claimed without verifying it myself. I left France unable to continue my work as I had previously done it. What rose in me was a commitment to study the writing system, to teach people what I knew to be true, and to question the unchecked “expertise” that had been passed down to me professionally. Don’t misunderstand me — there was enormous value in the work I had done prior to France, and even my flawed understanding of English spelling had managed to help children, teachers, and parents improve their literacy lot in life. But the radiant golden truth of written language would illuminate my path in untold ways thenceforth. As I shared my new understanding with my colleagues, with children, and with anyone who would listen, scribbling word sums and matrices on napkins and envelopes and white boards, I saw their eyes open too — not all of them, but many — and together we emerged from the fog of confusion that had plagued our instruction and peppered it with “exceptions” and “irregularities” for years.

It isn’t always easy to walk this road. People want simple explanations for things, and “exception” is speciously simple. Long-held beliefs and practices are not easy to part with, and people tend to like the paradigms they have, whether they’re accurate or not. The pedagogy of tradition, the “we’ve-always-done-it-this-way” mindset, is powerful and omnipresent in language education. So is the cult of personality, where who said something often gets more credence than what is actually said. Some people complain about my work, usually to someone other than me, in my absence, and often anonymously. It is tempting to leave some experts’ errors alone, because they are famous, or kind, or influential, or because I really like them as people. Well-meaning friends and colleagues have warned me that it is politically unsavvy to critique certain people’s work. I’ve had to explain to people to whom I am indebted why I’m critiquing their work. Some of them have taken it very graciously, and made efforts to improve their own understanding. Others have not. Ultimately, I try to stay focused on critiquing the work, critiquing the errors, and not assailing the character, attitude, or intent of the individual who made them. I don’t think that my teacher in France, my Copernicus, was mean for teaching me the truth, even though it made me cry. Sometimes, learning the truth hurts, but that doesn’t mean it’s hateful.

You know what I mean?

So that’s my story, but it isn’t over. I had set out, pre-signs, to write about <over>, to tell how that one free morpheme asserting its clear identity has left me overcome with understanding, and how I had gone on to overcome the continuing challenges in my work by holding tightly to my newfound and resplendent orthographic understanding. But this story, this post, isn’t about over; over has been done, overdone, in fact, in the comments on the edublog post that beat me to the explanatory punch. No, THIS story, this post, is about mean. It’s about being mean, and about being meaningful, by all means. It took me a while to realize it, but all the signs were pointing to mean. My friends’ well-meant encouragement, Sinead O’Connor’s earworm, Ricky Gervais’s self defense — these comprised the universe’s conspiracy to lead me to investigate if and how I might, in fact, be mean.

Off to the Mactionary I went. I found three homonymic entries for <mean>, a verb, an adjective, and a noun, all etymologically unrelated but intertwined in the collective English-speaking psyche.

Here’s the verb:

mean 1 |miːn|
verb
1 intend to convey, indicate, or refer to (a particular thing or notion); signify . . . [to] be of some specified importance to someone.
2 intend (something) to occur or be the case.
3 have as a consequence or result.

According to Etymonline and the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb has an Old English root, mænan, “to mean, tell, say, complain.” This same root is also connected to the present-day word moan. By looking at the root, we know why the present-day word is spelled <mean> rather than *<meen> or *<mene> or <mien>. This free base element surfaces in the words meaning, meaningful, meaningless, and meant, and is traceable to a Proto-Indo-European (PIE) etymon *mei-no-, denoting ‘intent, opinion.’ Some scholars suggest a link to the PIE form *men-, which denotes ‘to think, mind,’ which would make mean an etymological cousin to mind, mental, mentor, comment, demented, summon, mnemonic, mania, mantra, and even museum.

Perhaps when the experts write and teach about inaccurate orthographic understandings like combining forms, or when they call free bases like prefixes, or when they make facile and unfounded etymological claims, they mean well. Perhaps when people rely on mnemonic devices and mantras instead of investigations and evidence in language education, their intent is good. More important than the intent in education, however, is the content and the portent. While I can’t speak to what anyone else intends to convey, I can speak to what it means to learn wrong things as though they were facts: it means that teachers and students continue to operate in a kind of word murk, and it means relying on exceptions and equivocations to bolster up a deeply flawed understanding.

Here’s the adjective:

mean 2 |miːn|
adjective
1 unwilling to give or share things, especially money; not generous.
2 unkind, spiteful, or unfair . . . vicious or aggressive in behavior
3 (esp. of a place) poor in quality and appearance . . . inferior, poor.
4 (informal) excellent; very skillful or effective: he’s a mean cook.

This adjective also has an Old English root, ġemæne, meaning ‘common, held jointly.’ In Old English words, <ġe> is a common grammatical prefix, which dropped by Middle English; it’s still used in present day German and Dutch and Yiddish, in words like gesundheit and gestalt and oy, gevalt! Anyhow, the base of the Old English word, <mæne,> is etymological cousin to the Latin word munus/munera, or moenus/moenera, from which derives the present-day English bases <mune> and <mon>, as in commune, community, communicate, immunize, and common.

The notion of viciousness or nastiness that is frequently associated with mean is a relatively recent development, having arisen only in Modern English. The related word common, in fact, has been used disparagingly for a far longer time, especially in reference to women and criminals. When folks suggest that I’m being mean (the adjective) because I seek and speak the facts of English orthography, they probably mean (the verb) that I’m being unkind or offensive. But what I’m really doing is being common; that is, I’m striving to make common an understanding of how written English works and doesn’t work. When I tell a Spelling Expert that Latin words indeed do compound, or that <over> is not a prefix, or that <able> is not an Anglo-Saxon suffix, I am offering information that is publicly available, jointly held by all English speakers and writers, universal, general, shared by all. I don’t own the facts of English orthography; rather, they’re mean. They belong to everyone, and they’re there for the taking, no expertise required. My aim in exposing the facts is not to change the experts’ minds: it is to equip the common person to change his or her own mind.

Here’s the noun:

mean 3 |miːn|
noun
1 the quotient of the sum of several quantities and their number; an average
2 a condition, quality, or course of action equally removed from two opposite (usually unsatisfactory) extremes.

This mean (the noun) derives from the Latin medianus, where we also get median. It denotes being in the middle, something that is between extremes. As a noun, it is used in math, but also colloquially, as in the saying by all means. It can also be used as an adjective, as in the mean home value or the mean age at marriage. In fact, its connotations of middleness lent it a sense of mediocrity that picked up on the connotations of commonness or baseness of the adjective mean. As I said, these distinct homonyms from distinct historical roots get all mixed up in the modern English-speaking mind.

But peeling apart the confusion gets really interesting for me in the existence of an Old English word mān, which was both a noun and an adjective, that meant ‘crime/criminal, shame(ful), wicked(ness), evil.’ But it had nothing to with the present-day adjective mean. Rather, most scholars agree that mān is cognate to the present-day verb mean — it has to do with evil or wicked intent, with the wish to do harm (Mitchell and Robinson, Bosworth and Toller, Calvert Watkins).

Here’s how the OED puts it:

“It has sometimes been supposed that the sense development of the word [the adjective mean] has been influenced by Old English mæne false, wicked . . . but this seems unlikely, as this adjective did not survive into Middle English, while the moral senses of mean only appear in modern English.”

So in other words, a word that had to do with evil intent fell out of use, and later on, another totally distinct word took on totally similar connotations. While there’s no evidence that mean the verb and mean the adjective are related, that doesn’t stop people from conflating them in their minds. So when people say that I’m being mean or warn me against being too mean, they are assuming an intent that Just. Isn’t. There.

Let me be perfectly clear: when I point to a Spelling Expert’s errors and say, “that’s not true,” what I mean is, “that’s not true.” I do not mean, “Boy, are you an idiot.” I do not mean, “I am so much smarter than you.” I do not mean, “Well, the language works differently for me than it does for you.” On the contrary, what I mean is this: “What you’ve said about the language is wrong. It’s false. It is not okay to continue teaching this error to people as though it were correct.”

More importantly, I also mean this: “The writing system makes sense. Beautiful, orderly, astonishing sense. Let me show you! We can have a common understanding, and we can make that understanding available to others, to be jointly held by all who study the written English word.”

Maybe it sounds mean, but I really don’t think so.

My intent — what I mean to do — is to continue to share the facts of English orthography and a deep understanding of them with others, to make these things commonly available, by all means.

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