I Was, in Fact, an English Major . . .

. . . so it stands to reason that I would be excited about teaching Lorelei English this year.  And I’m especially excited about this:
voyages in english
This book is sort of vintage and sort of not.  What do I mean?  Well, it’s a reprint of a book that was published in 1962.  I would rather have an actual copy from 1962, but those are harder to find and more expensive.
The Voyages in English series is a relic of the golden era of Catholic education.  The textbooks my kids used in their parochial schools were devoid of religion, except, of course, for their religion books.  Not so in the 60s and earlier, when English texts and readers presented our faith alongside academic concepts.
But I wouldn’t pick a textbook just for that.  This series is acknowledged as an excellent one.  This will be my first time using the fourth grade book.  For William and Teddy, I used a third grade book because I couldn’t find the fourth grade book at that time, and it was plenty advanced for fourth grade, believe me!  Sadly, it was lost in the fire.  Jake did pages from my own third grade English workbook, which was from a different, but still Catholic, series.  I also used to have the eighth grade grammar book, which I used for homeschooling Jake in seventh grade.  That book was AMAZING.  There were grammar concepts in there I had never even heard of.  Jake and I both love grammar so we thoroughly enjoyed that book.
Besides the Catholic content, this book is full of old-fashioned concepts like courtesy and citizenship.  While the presentation may seem a little dated, the concepts aren’t–or at least they shouldn’t be.  And explaining “vintage” ideas to Lorelei will make English a mini-history lesson as well.
The first chapter is called Fun with Our Pets, and it begins: “St. Francis of Assisi was a friend to all the animals and the birds.  They raised his thoughts to God, who was their Father as well as his Father.”  I love that!  One of the first things Lorelei will learn in this chapter is how to write a letter correctly.  I’m not sure that’s something they teach in schools anymore, but we are going to do it, and we are going to write actual letters to people and mail them! [Update: Once or twice, anyway.]
Chapter Two, Adventures in Bookland, starts thus: “All of us have many friends . . . There are also other friends whose companionship means much to us–the books that we read.”  Isn’t that awesome?  This is where we start learning how to write good paragraphs.
I won’t go crazy and tell you about every single chapter but there’s one that focuses on courtesy, and boy does Lorelei need that after a steady summer diet of the brats on the Disney Channel.
Anyway, I’m excited.  And I’m going to teach her how to diagram sentences too. 🙂 [Update: Maybe this year.]

Southern Grammar: It’s Got Rules, Y’all!

No snarky comments about the title, please!  If you aren’t a lover of language and words like I am, you might not realize that all dialects have their own internal grammar and operate according to rules.  And I’m going to write from time to time about the rules of the dialect I know best: Southern American English, or SAE.

Today let’s talk about y’all.

Y’all (short for you all) is a beloved Southernism–a “high prestige” word that even Yankee immigrants are quick to adopt, unlike other usages which I will discuss another time.  There’s a good reason for this–it’s not just useful, it’s necessary.

Unlike many other languages, English lacks a second person plural (although earlier forms of the language had one).  “You” serves for one person or many.  Such simplification of forms is a regular occurrence in languages over time, but if you ask me this was a stupid one:  we obviously need a plural for you, and all dialects of English do their best to supply one.

If you aren’t a Southerner, you may laugh at “y’all,” but you probably say “you guys” yourself.  There are other regional variations–you’uns, youse, you people.  What it comes down to is we NEED a plural form of you and y’all fills the bill nicely.

Now here is the rule that I want all non-speakers of SAE to hear and internalize:  y’all is ONLY and ALWAYS plural.  No Southerner EVER uses it to mean one person, as I have seen on more than one occasion in books written by Yankees attempting to infuse their work with local color.  “Oh, y’all sure do know the way to a lady’s heart,” spoken by an eyelash-batting Southern belle to an admirer in a romance novel is just WRONG.  I have had non-speakers attempt to convince me that I am mistaken, that they are SURE they have heard y’all used in this way.  NO.

Now, y’all is occasionally used in a collective sense, where it is spoken to one person, but it is still a plural because that person is a representative of a group.  For example, I might say to a store clerk:  “Do y’all have any more Ugly Dolls in the back?”  (I DID say that, yesterday. )  Or I might say to a friend, “Where are y’all going on vacation?” (Y’all means her whole family.)

Sometimes even y’all isn’t plural enough.  So I might ask a group of friends, “Are all y’all coming with me?” It may sound crazy but if you think about the grammar it’s really no different than saying. “Are all of you coming?” or “Are all you guys coming?”

Finally, let’s discuss the possessive form.  In books I always see “y’all’s” and I have heard people say that now and again.  But far more prevalent here in East Tennessee is the form “your-all’s,” which caused my college roommate to fall off her bed laughing the first time she heard me say it.

Songs of Innocence and of Experience

When I was in college, I opted to pursue an Honors degree in English.  Part of the requirement for this was to write a sort of mini-thesis that incorporated some concept that one could trace through several different works and then defend before two professors and a peer.
In the Liberal Arts Seminar that consumed most of my freshman year, I had been introduced to the pre-Romantic poet William Blake and his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, books of poetry that he illustrated with his own woodcuts.  The idea that we all start out life innocent (think Adam and Eve in Paradise) but then inevitably have to pass through the fires of experience seemed to keep turning up over and over in the books I read throughout college.  Blake’s vision wasn’t entirely bleak, thankfully, since he implied that if one learned from the experience, “organized innocence” –wisdom–would result.
So in my paper I talked about innocence, experience, and wisdom in Blake’s poetry, in William Wordsworth’s Prelude, in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield.  I defended it successfully, and I got that Honors degree.  Did I understand what I was writing about?  Probably not.
But most people who have made it to (ahem!) middle age would understand, and they wouldn’t need an Honors degree to do it, either.  Because by now all of us have passed through the inescapable fires of experience, and we hope that we are at least a little wiser.
Last night I attended a production of  The Fantasticks, the longest-running musical EVER, put on by the KCHS Theatre Department.  My son Jake played El Gallo.  Twenty-seven years ago, my husband played Amos Babcock Bellamy.  He admits that he and his friends didn’t really understand the play then, and Jake admits that he and his friends don’t really understand it now.  Our younger kids attended with us last night, and they enjoyed it, but they didn’t comprehend it.
How could they, when it is an extended metaphor about innocence, experience, and wisdom, and when you are in high school you don’t know or believe any of that.  Who doesn’t want to believe that first love will last forever?  Who wants to think that being buffeted and scarred by the world not only confers benefits but is actually necessary to growth?  Who wouldn’t rather stay in the garden forever, with no need for eventual redemption?
I started crying last night as soon as Jake appeared onstage singing  Try to Remember at the opening of the play.  Part of that had to do with parental pride and my feelings about my son, but part of it sprang from the sadness of knowing (as the song says) that “without a hurt the heart is hollow.”  The play has a happy ending of sorts, but still I saw my husband wiping his eyes at the end.  Because even though we both know that innocence comes to an end, that experience is unavoidable, that the wisdom we’ve gained since we were in high school is valuable, irreplaceable–we wish it didn’t have to be that way.

Thank you to Palo for the beautiful featured image.

Poetry Blogging : To a Fat Lady Seen from a Train

A couple of years ago one of my children was studying poetry in middle school English class, learning different types of rhyme/rhythm schemes.  The following poem was given as an example of a triolet (a form I had never heard of before).
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
This poem was written by Frances Darwin Cornford.  Yes, she was Charles Darwin’s granddaughter, and although she wrote other poems as well, this much-hated one is her present claim to fame.  G.K. Chesterton so loathed it that he penned this scathing reply:
Why do you rush through the field in trains,
Guessing so much and so much?
Why do you flash through the flowery meads,
Fat-head poet that nobody reads;
And why do you know such a frightful lot
About people in gloves as such?
And how the devil can you be sure,
Guessing so much and so much,
How do you know but what someone who loves
Always to see me in nice white gloves
At the end of the field you are rushing by,
Is waiting for his Old Dutch?
If you read the above link which explains what a triolet is, you will learn that Cornford’s poem is a perfect example, which is one reason it is quoted and remembered; another is that it makes people angry.  And I’m not really sure why that is.  Are people angry that the poet would make an assumption about someone based on what she observed in such a brief instant in time?  But isn’t it the poet’s–or any writer’s–prerogative to apply her imagination to whatever raw material she encounters? It’s not like she found out the woman’s name and told the world that she knows for a fact that no one loves this woman!
Maybe they are angry because the poem calls the woman fat, and they assume that the poet has decided it is her fatness that makes her unlovable.  Myself, I read “fat” as nothing more than a descriptor.  Plenty of fat women are loved, after all, both now and in Cornford’s time.
I read it differently, seeing the gloves as a metaphor for the woman’s refusal to engage with the messiness of life, which causes her to miss out on sensual experiences and therefore on love.  Gloves are too formal for a walk through the fields and suggest that this woman sees herself as separate from or above nature, perhaps someone who doesn’t wish to “get her hands dirty” by experiencing life and love.
What do you think?  Do you like the poem?  Or do you agree with Chesterton?

Liturgical Music and Inclusive Language

When I was a freshman at Georgetown, Father von Arx, a history professor, handed back my first paper marked with the following:  “May I suggest you try using inclusive language?”  Now, I didn’t have the slightest idea what he meant by that, and I didn’t find out for years.  And a good thing, too, since that’s a suggestion I mostly don’t care to follow.
I tried to find a good definition of inclusive language but the problem is that the defnition is slanted based on the opinion of the source providing it.  I will attempt to be objective and say we use inclusive language when we use words like humankind instead of mankind, chairperson instead of chairman, and he/she instead of he (most people are resorting to using “they” as a singular, however).  Proponents of this approach say that women are excluded by the usual words, which are reflective of a male-dominated society.  Opponents say that inclusive language is clunky and sounds stupid and that these people are making a mountain over a molehill.  I say that even if we start using inclusive language from now on there is no reason to go back and rewrite old songs and even re-translate the BIBLE to fit in with modern ideas of what is appropriate.
And here’s some of what one of my favorite authors (Madeleine L’Engle) had to say:

[The] generic his and he, [is] not exclusively masculine.  I am a female, of the species, man.  Genesis is very explicit that it takes both make and female to make the image of God, and that the generic word, man, includes both . . .Therefore I refuse to be timid about being a part of mankind . . . Nor do I want to be stuck in the vague androidism whcih has resulted from the attempts to avoid the masculine pronoun . . . language is its own creature; it evolves on its own . . . it does not do well when suffering from arbitrary control.  Our attempts to change the words which have long been part of a society dominated by males have not been successful.  Instead of making language less sexist they have made it more so . . . To substitute person for man has ruined what used to be a good, theological word, calling up the glory of God’s image within us.

Sorry for the long quotation, but I certainly cannot say it so well.  I don’t think of myself as a typical feminist.  Men and women are not equal.  If I had to pick a superior sex, I’d pick the female, frankly.  We have proven ourselves capable of doing just about everything men can do just as well, and we have more endurance, are emotionally stronger, AND bear children.  Men are physically stronger and can parallel park better.  No contest, right?  I don’t see how being referred to as “he” or part of “mankind” diminishes my power in any way!
But a lot of people feel that way, and have convinced others that this is the “politically correct” and “sensitive” way to feel.  They are in the ascendance, and they have changed our songs.  They have, in my opinion, mutilated our songs, changing not just words but meanings and turning some of them into nonsense.  Let’s look at a few, shall we?
Let There Be Peace on Earth is one of the few songs I remember fondly from the 70s–it’s so fun to sing, especially as it crescendos dramatically toward the end.  I chose it for the recessional at my grandmother’s funeral.  Needless to say, we sang it the “right” way.  The line that was changed originally read: “With God as our Father, brothers all are we. Let me walk with my brother in perfect harmony.” (Okay, the poetry was never the best.)  The powers that be changed it to “With God as our Father, neighbors all are we.  Let us walk with each other . . .”  I think we can all agree that brother is a stronger word than neighbor because it implies a closer, familial relationship.  But what is even more annoying to someone who delights in the English language is that the new phrase is nonsense.  Having God as our Father makes us brothers, or brothers and sisters if you must, not neighbors.  Therefore I have spent the last ten or more years singing (under my breath) “With God as our Landlord, neighbors all are we.”
Apparently someone finally realized the problem and attempted a new rewrite.  Newer versions say, “With God as our Father, we are family.”  Come on!  Can anyone take this seriously?  Is there anyone who doesn’t think of Sister Sledge when they hear that?  It takes me right out of the song every time.
Here’s another one that has been ruined.  I Am the Bread of Life is hated by the people who make the worst hymns lists anyway, because it features the people singing the part of God, apparently a big no-no.  But it’s biblical, and the congregation sings it loudly and well, and I always enjoyed it pre-change.  Now I dread it.  Why?  They replaced every instance of the pronoun “he” with “you” but that’s not the worst of it.  I always loved this line:  “No one can come to Me, unless the Father draw him.”    I loved it because of the oh-so-rare use of the subjunctive mood, even though most people substituted “draws” in practice!  Here’s the new line:  “No one can come to Me, unless the Father beckons.”    Am I the only one who sees a problem here?  Aside from the lost subjunctive, isn’t it obvious that “draw” and “beckon” don’t mean the same thing?  The original line connotes the power of God pulling one toward Him irresistibly.  The new line is more like, “Yoo-hoo!  It’s Me, God!  Come on over here if you feel like it.”  Yuck!  Can you tell I feel strongly about this?
How about Be Not Afraid?  This is not the only change, but the line that once read “and if wicked men insult and hate you” now reads “and if wicked tongues insult and hate you.”  One amusing thing is that when other parts of this songs were changed, this line was originally left alone, as though it were okay to specify “men” as long as they were being wicked!  But eventually someone must have realized that wasn’t really fair, so now we have this nonsense.  I’ll buy tongues insulting, but hating?  What, do Christians taste bad or something?
These three are the worst examples that come to my mind, but inclusive language subtly changes the meanings of many songs.  I just discovered that The Servant Song, sung ad nauseam at my parish, loved by most and loathed by me, wasn’t quite as bad before it fell prey to inclusive language.  It used to be “Brother, let me be your servant”  instead of “Will you let me be your servant.”  See the difference in tone?  And in the second verse it once said “We are brothers on the road” where it now says “We are travelers on the road.”  Lots of people are traveling on the road.  So what?  Saying they are brothers makes ALL the difference and then the following lines make sense:  “We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.” (Sadly, it doesn’t help the poetry or the icky way the words don’t go with the music, but that’s the subject of a different post!)
Finally, worst of all are the songs that have eliminated the use of “He” to refer to God, awkwardly saying “God” over and over again to avoid it.  For crying out loud.  Do any of us really think that God is an old man with a beard?  Don’t we all know that God must have feminine qualities if all of us are made in His Image?  Have we forgotten that Jesus Himself called God Father?  Do we really need to change “I am He that comforts you,” to “I am God that comforts you” to make some point? (If we really want to change those lines from Turn to Me–which has inclusive language tampering in almost every line now–we’d do better to exchange “that” for “who” to make it grammatically correct!)
Plainly, I could go on for days on this topic.  I probably will return to it from time to time.  Please feel free to share in the comments your feelings about the changes in your favorite hymns.  And look with a more critical eye at the changes the next time you notice them at Mass.

Word Rant

I love words.  I spent many, many years studying them for spelling bees.  I understand diacritical markings.  Besides being an English major, in college I took linguistics and Latin as electives for fun!  In grad school I took American English, Old English, and the History of the English Language.  My bookshelves are full of books about words and language.  One of my most prized possessions is my enormous Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, which is literally falling to pieces from use.  You know those books of frequently misused words?  I read those for fun.
So misused words are a constant source of irritation to me.  No, I am not going to talk about Sarah Palin and “refudiate” which reminds me of a great word coined my my husband’s mother: “Flustrated.”  I could talk about lots of words–and now that I have this blog to rant in I probably frequently will–but today I want to talk about “troops.”
Almost every day I read about American troops dying in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Whether it is for the sake of saving space or for fear of giving offense that newspaper editors have unilaterally decided to replace the correct term, soldier, with troop, but IT IS WRONG.  Why am I the only one who notices this?  Here are some definitions of troop from dictionary.com:

an assemblage of persons or things; company; band.


a great number or multitude: A whole troop of children swarmed through the museum.
Military . an armored cavalry or cavalry unit consisting of two or more platoons and a headquarters group.
troops, a body of soldiers, police, etc.: Mounted troops quelled the riot.
a unit of Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts usually having a maximum of 32 members under the guidance of an adult leader.
a herd, flock, or swarm.
Archaic . a band or troupe of actors.
You can read more definitions here, but I can guarantee you (because I already read them all) that they all share one crucial element:  a troop is a group!  It is not one person, not EVER, and this substandard and yet nearly universal usage has yet to be added to the dictionary.
It will, though, because what a lot of people do not realize is that dictionaries are more descriptive than prescriptive, and if enough idiots keep saying troop when they mean soldier, they will change the language.  For the worse.

Private pain

 A WONDERFUL FACT to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all. No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged. It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. It was appointed that the water should be locked in an eternal frost, when the light was playing on its surface, and I stood in ignorance on the shore. My friend is dead, my neighbour is dead, my love, the darling of my soul, is dead; it is the inexorable consolidation and perpetuation of the secret that was always in that individuality, and which I shall carry in mine to my life’s end. In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?

The above is from one of my favorite novels, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.  Perhaps it has stayed with me because it so eloquently expresses a mystery I have often felt but have never been able to explain so well, the realization that all around me, others are going through their days, living their lives, thinking their thoughts, and those lives and those thoughts, of which I am completely unaware, are every bit as important to them as mine are to me.  I may see a person just once, through a car window, our lives just barely intersecting, and I will never know anything more about that person, her triumphs, his tragedies. 
Have you ever stared at the person you love most in the world and suddenly realized something similar, that he or she is a person just like you, with an inner life and thoughts you can never fully fathom?  All of a sudden that person starts to look a little too REAL, somehow, and you almost have to look away.  It’s too much to think about, too much to understand.
I’m thinking about this today for a sad reason.  I was thinking about how over the past several weeks so many of us have been following Henry’s tragic story, and it has become very personal to us, and painful, because Katie’s writing drew us in and she allowed us to become part of the story, to have the privilege to share her suffering.
But there is so much suffering and so much death, all around us, every day, that we cannot share.  This morning the headline story of our local paper told of the death of another teenager, this one a girl who was shot on her own front porch by a stray bullet as she tried to take her baby cousin to safety.  How many more have died from drive-by shootings, because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time?  And just last week two teenage boys died in a terrible car crash while on a road trip.  Car crashes are the third leading cause of death for teenagers, after all.  
Almost exactly two years ago, our family members in Maryland were stunned by the death of Brian, who had just graduated from high school and was headed to the beach to celebrate when his car was hit by a drunk driver–a driver who had killed with his car before.  And I still remember vividly the case of the Knoxville Catholic High School senior, Sharon Gerard, who died in a motorcycle crash on graduation night when I was still a sophomore. 
So many tragic and early deaths.  If you are reading papers in other states, you’ll have seen different stories, equally sad.  Or you have personal knowledge of similar situations–perhaps your family has been touched personally by untimely death.  We read the stories of others, and maybe our eyes dampen a bit as we say what a terrible thing it is that has happened.  But then we go on, because there is only so much pain we can allow ourselves to feel.
Death and tragedy and loss are, then, universal.  We all suffer them.  Yet to the extent that we experience them privately and internally, our losses are singular and peculiar to us alone.  Everyone feels them differently and we can never know exactly how another is grieving.  Nor can we know what private pain that person we glimpse in passing through the car window is carrying inside, but we can be sure that there is something.

What’s in a Name?

The following is a reprint of a column that ran in The East Tennessee Catholic newspaper on August 11, 2002.  It explains the name of my former column, which is now the name of this blog.

Names are important.

Think of the time we spend choosing the names we give our children, the hours poring over baby-name books, making lists, asking opinions, only to be told years later by an unappreciative adolescent, “I hate my name!”

Now, any writer or artist will tell you that his creative product is something like “offspring” to him.  So when it was time–past time–to name this column, I agonized over the choice for days.  Then, coming up blank, I followed my usual procedure for titling my work:  I stole.

Image result for bartlett's familiar quotations
Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations with its handy index is an old friend that has proved its worth to me many times.  I looked up life in the back of the book, and voila, the works of far better writers than I were at my disposal.

The phrase “life in every limb” sounded perfect at first reading, and once I investigated the source became even more so.

First, the author:  William Wordsworth, famed English poet of the Romantic Period, and as it happens, an old favorite of mine.  My first college English professor, later my advisor, is a preeminent Wordsworth scholar who spends summers at Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in the Lake District.  By virtue of his enthusiasm almost as much as Wordsworth’s talent, he taught us to love Wordsworth too.  This seemed like an omen.

Next the poem whence the line came: We Are Seven. The poem’s narrator encounters a “little maid,” who in answer to questions about her family asserts again and again that there are seven children, even though two have died.  This inclusion in the family’s number of two who are unable to speak for themselves resonated with me as I thought of the voiceless unborn and their need for similar champions.

Finally, the entire quotation:  “A simple child/That lightly draws its breath/And feels its life in every limb/What should it know of death?” I thought of the unborn child, alive in every way, in every part of its tiny body, heart beating, blood pumping, at the very beginning of its life doomed so often to a premature and violent death.

I wonder what Wordsworth might add to the abortion debate if he were with us today.  My first child’s godmother (a fellow student of the aforementioned professor) created a beautiful cross-stitch as a gift for Emily when she was born from a paraphrased Wordsworth quotation: “Children come trailing clouds of glory from God who is their home.”

This comes from his Ode on the Intimations of Mortality, in which he expounds upon his belief that children are closer to God because they remember glimpses of heaven that are more and more lost to us as we grow older.  His own heavenly visions, the “spots of time” he celebrates in his long autobiographical narrative poem The Prelude, were a continuing source of inspiration to Wordsworth.  I have a feeling that he would have viewed the killing of the innocent unborn, fresh from God’s hand, as the worst kind of sacrilege.

Moving to a different sort of literature, the phrase “life in every limb” calls to mind St. Paul‘s metaphor of 1 Corinthians 12: ” . . . [T]he body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body . . . .”  Each person, born or unborn, is a part of that body and has a unique role to fulfill.

In valuing all members of the body equally, our church espouses a consistent ethic of life.  Although abortion is the focus of this column, I plan to write about many other life issues, such as the death penalty and euthanasia.  We might think of the abortion issue as just one of the many limbs of the church’s pro-life teachings.  For we are a church that embraces and celebrates and protects all life, that of the innocent unborn equally with that of the convicted murderer, of the ill and disabled along with the healthy, of the non-Christian along with the Christian–life in every limb of the Body of Christ.