Tag Archives: language

475. Speak English!

Over in Serial today, a fairly long bit of exposition appears in Symphony in a Minor Key. It amounts to an essay (or maybe sermon) on English and Spanish in American schools. It has nothing to do with DACA or contemporary issues of immigration, since it was written in the late eighties. It also doesn’t come down for or against bilingualism. It is a look at the underlying problems faced by both Anglo and Hispanic students. Even if you aren’t following Symphony, this post is still worth a look.

I came to these conclusions by a three step process, beginning with growing up as a smart kid in a tiny, rural Oklahoma school. We were all white, all English speakers, and we all sounded more or less the same. The teachers spoke grammatical English, mostly, but the kids and their parents did not. I wanted to, and I needed to, since I planned to go to college. I read books, and the words on the page did not closely resemble the words I heard from farmers down at the grain elevator.

Eventually, I realized that the language of the books I was reading was not the same dialect that I was hearing from those around me. My English teachers consciously and painfully spoke grammatical English, the other teacher also did, but with many noticeable lapses, and no one else even tried. If I was going to go to college, I needed more, so I memorized Strunk and White.

Now I could write essays that were as good, and as grammatical, as anyone’s, no matter where that person was educated. It got me into college. Michigan State University gave me a scholarship and I was on my way.

Except — when I got off the train in East Lansing, no one could understand a word I said. My words were all correct, and grammatically strung together, but they were all pronounced “wrong”. I had “learned to talk like the man on the six o’clock news”, but he had an Okie accent too, and I never knew it.

My roommates learned to understand me, and translated during the first few weeks until I had gotten used to Michigander pronunciations and learned to mimic them. My accent slowly faded, but came back with a vengeance every time I went home. I never did learn the supposed difference between “i” and “e”. Pen and pin are still pronounced exactly the same inside my head. I can fake the difference, but it hurts my mouth.

Personal experience showed me how our American language works, but I did not know why until PBS produced a mini-series called The Story of English in 1986. I recommend it if you can find a copy and a VCR to play it on. I wish PBS would make it available in some modern format.

It turns out that American English is so diverse because British English was a melange of dialects when it arrived in the New World. They found their way to various regions of America and thrived there. Now I came to understand that, when JFK said Cuber instead of Cuba, and all those fine craftsmen on This Old House leave out their “r”s, they aren’t really as goofy as they sound. They are reflecting an Old English dialect that happened to land in their region. I also realize now that “there ain’t no such word as ain’t”, simply because the South lost the Civil War.

When I started teaching in the mid-eighties, I had a clear understanding of the many Englishes, and I quickly came to recognize what that meant for Spanish speaking English learners, which led to today’s post in Serial. I won’t repeat those conclusions here, since you can just go read them there.

One final anecdote, regarding the last sentence in today’s Serial post — One our better English learners graduated from eighth grade and left us. She came back a few years later to visit her middle school teachers. Her parents had moved back to Mexico and had enrolled her in a quality Mexican high school. When we asked her how she liked it, she said, “I thought I was good until I got there, but I found out all those kids speak Spanish and I speak Mexican!”


465. Black, White, Aryan, Jew

This is a slightly rewritten republication of a post of the same name from 2016. It is important enough to say again, basically unchanged.

In America, race means black and white. It’s basically a construct. It is a handy visual tool we use so we can tell us from them.

We all partake of the same gene pool, varying only in the amount of various genes we possess. Take the whitest non-albino; put him on one end of the line. Take the blackest black and put him on the other. Assemble the millions of the rest of us and put us in between. There would be no break in the gradation.

Nevertheless, race is still here, so embedded in our national consciousness that the truth of our unity is swamped by the voice in our heads screaming, “I don’t care. Blacks are still blacks, and whites are still whites!”

This kind of confusion about basic reality leads to tragedy, and not only in America. Try this sentence:

In the days of the Third Reich, Germans persecuted Jews.

If this sentence sounds accurate, you are missing a few points. The Jews who were sent to the death camps were largely Germans. I am sure that was no comfort to them, and it isn’t the most salient fact about the situation. But it is important. If we put a wrong label on something, it makes it hard to think clearly about that thing. This process is still going on, as today’s politicians turn complexities into sound bites.

Hitler offered simplified and false solutions to real problems, based on the idea that there was a German race and a Jewish race. Jewish is not a race. It is a religion, and sometimes an ethnic group.

German is not a race. It is a language, and it is shared by several countries other than Germany. Germanism is also an attempt by the late-formed country of Germany to find national unity in a semi-mythical past.

Aryan is not a race. If you say Aryan in today’s world, it will evoke Hitler’s movement to elevate his blonde, blue-eyed “super race” to world supremacy. That super race is a myth made up of equal parts hatred and scientific misunderstanding.

In fact, the term Aryan originates in northern India, 3500 years ago. It refers to the “light skinned” conquerors who drove out or enslaved the dark skinned native population. The word Iranian is a modern variant of the word Aryan. As for the “light skinned” conquerors, think Koothrappali from the Big Bang Theory. The Aryans were light skinned only compared to the people they conquered.

Hitler should be rolling over in his grave at the thought, but he got his information third hand.

It started with Max Muller, an honest German born-scholar who spent his career at Oxford. Linguists of his day discovered the link between the languages of Europe and South Asia, and developed the notion of an Indo-European language family. They believed this family of languages originated in the southwestern steppes of Russia, and was introduced into South Asia through the Aryan invaders. Muller was a strong proponent of Aryan culture, considering it one of the greatest developments of mankind. By Aryan, he meant the culture of India. After others had misrepresented his ideas, he clarified that Aryan culture did not imply an Aryan race. No one listened.

As time passed, proponents of European superiority such as Arthur de Gobineau moved the origin place of the Indo-European language family to northern Europe, confused current notions of race (such as Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean) with the linguistic and cultural classification Aryan. They “invented” the Aryan race, which they considered to be light skinned in the European sense, the originators of civilization, and superior to all others.

The caramel skinned invaders of India had been thoroughly whitewashed.

The last member of this trio is Huston Stewart Chamberlain, born in England, raised in France, and ending his life in Germany, converted to German superiority by Wagner’s music. He wrote the Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, in which he saw the history of the world entirely in terms of conflict between the Aryan and Jewish races. It became a bible of Nazism, and Chamberlain became a mentor to Hitler.

Labels like Jew and Aryan matter, just as labels like black and white matter in America. A “Jew” in Nazi Germany might be a Zionist extremist who believed that God chose his people and would smite all his enemies. He might be a modernistic non-believer who had repudiated his Jewish ancestors, read Nietzsche, and listened to Wagner. He might even be some poor schmuck who just got misidentified. It would all be the same in Auschwitz.

The Aryans that Hitler believed in, didn’t exist at all.

439. Jose, Maria, y Jesus in Trumpland

[Don’t expect even handedness here.]

In English we call him Joseph, in Italian he is Giuseppe, in Basque he is Joseba, in Spanish he is just plain Jose.

In English we call her Mary, in Hebrew she is Miryam, in German she is Maria, and also in Spanish.

In English he is Jesus, in Cornish he is Jesu, in Italian he is Gesu, and in Spanish he is Jesus again, but pronounced Hey-sous.

We are going to walk with these three in this sermon for the Christmas season.

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. And all went, every on into his own city. And Jose also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, to be taxed with Maria his espoused wife, being great with child.

Of course that could be written as Joseph and Mary, but surely they are the same couple, in any language. Jose was a carpenter. He built things out of wood to feed his family, and he paid his taxes like everybody else. All the world was to be taxed, and he had to go back to the place from which his people came.

Where would that be? Perhaps a land with cities named Sacramento for the Holy Sacrament, or maybe Atascadero, Alameda, Camarillo, El Segundo, or Escondido. Perhaps cities like Fresno, La Mesa, Madera, or Mariposa show where his people once lived. Certainly they must have lived in cities like Los Angeles, Merced, Paso Robles, Salinas, or San Francisco. Even if his people no longer own the land, certainly the city named after him, San Jose, must once have belonged to his people.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

I think Luke shortened this a bit. Was there only one inn in Bethlehem? We can see the young couple, going from place to place, Jose leading, Maria on a burro since she cannot walk so late in her pregnancy. Everywhere they are turned away. Are all the sleeping places truly full? It may be. Or perhaps something about the two of them, perhaps the color of their skin, makes the innkeepers turn them away. Luke does not tell us.

I see migrant housing everywhere I go in California and I think, perhaps, a manger was preferable.

Now they are in a place where their people once lived, but to which they are no longer welcome. And here, their son is born.

Donald Trump would call Him an anchor baby. I wonder what He will call Trump, when they finally meet.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

To all people. ALL people. Imagine that!


Luke’s story is complete, but ours is not. It is up to every one of us to see that it turns out right.

428. Ve Speak Goot English

This is from today’s post in Serial:

(Language), Neil knew, was a real problem for those families who went back and forth between Mexico and the United States. The brightest children leaned to speak, read, and write English, but they were illiterate in Spanish. They could speak the lower class Spanish used in their homes, but they usually could not read or write it. Worse, their dialect was no more suitable for a good Mexican school than an American hillbilly dialect would have been suitable for a high school in Boston.

Fiction has its place. It can make us think and care, but plain old non-fiction can sometimes get things across more quickly. To wit:

We are a nation of immigrants. Everyone knows that.

Spanish is an immigrant language. Yep. Everyone knows that, too. However, so is English. If we we spoke a language that isn’t an immigrant language, we would all be speaking Cherokee, or one of several hundred other native tongues. Aztec, anyone?

English got here first. No, actually it didn’t. Of European languages, Old Norse got here first with the Vikings, but it didn’t last. Spanish got here second. English, French, Portuguese, German, Swedish — the list could get tedious if we let it — are all late comers.

English won.

Now we are zeroing in on the truth. The French gave up the right to provide the language of choice for about half of the USA when Napoleon sold Jefferson the Louisiana Purchase. Spanish lost out as the language of choice in Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, part of Colorado and Louisiana, tiny corners of Wyoming, Mississippi, Alabama, Kansas, and Oklahoma, and all of California at the point of a gun. Or, a bunch of guns. That’s roughly a third of the lower forty-eight.

Like it or not, it happened, and it is irreversible. English is the language of the US, despite the innumerable other languages spoken by our immigrants. They came here, procreated, the original speakers died, and their offspring now speak English.

So why are the Spanish speakers different? It is certainly not because of anything wrong with them. It’s quite simple. When Germans immigrated, they didn’t go back. Modern immigrant Spanish speakers, primarily Mexican, documented or undocumented, go back and forth.

Migrant labor is typically seasonal. Besides, wouldn’t you rather spend winter in Mazatlan than Minnesota if you could? Hordes of Anglos do it, and they don’t even speak the language.

Not all people of Spanish background move back and forth. Many of them came to the US and stayed. Tens of thousands of them were already here to greet the Anglo pioneers when they arrived. See map above! Millions of them don’t speak any Spanish, just as Nils Hansen of Kenosha, Wisconsin (hypothetical person) doesn’t speak Danish. There is a word for these people — Americans — and they don’t pose any language problem in the schools.

Those who do go back and forth are not going to stop doing so. It works for them. Summer labor in the US, then back to Mexico for its mild winters and lower costs is not just logical, it’s capitalism. It’s entrepreneurship. It’s survival for the Mexican families and cheap food for you. Drive by any field in California at harvest time and count the Anglos bending their backs in the sun. Your total will be zero.

A wall won’t change it. A path to citizenship won’t change it, either. The idea of a hermetically sealed border is a Trumpean delusion.

So where does that leave the children of migrants? In a tough spot, to be sure. They often don’t spend the whole school year in schools in America, and they often don’t enroll while they are in Mexico. Many don’t learn to speak, read, and write English as well as their Anglo or permanent Mexican American classmates. Some barely speak, read, or write English at all. They speak Spanish, but they often don’t read or write it.

Solutions? That would take a shelf of books, not a post.

370. Fantasy World Building (3)

When you are ready to build your own fantasy world, you might consider these four things: tone, magic, language, and the concept of the archaic (found in posts Monday, Tuesday, and today).

The question, as we ended yesterday, was language, and who bothers to create them.

I did, in a manner of speaking. The Menhir stories grew from a single image, and I had no idea for years where they were going. Things got invented, and the world of the Menhir grew by accretion. I invented a style of fighting, which required invention of a sword/lance, which required invention of a name, and lancette entered my story’s vocabulary. A thousand place names and personal names got invented. Gradually, the world grew a religious background which became the underpinning for what passes for magic on that world. This morphed into an entire system for the handling of life and death, and words like ai, enreithment, and abahara entered the vocabulary of the story. I invented a kind of peasant dwelling and now we had hartwa. My people started out with oxen and horses but that wasn’t satisfactory, so they were soon riding kakais and using tichan to pull their wagons.

Words begat words, morphographically. Since ai means power and dzi– means man of, then a dziai is a man of power, and the men of the plains whose entire lives revolve around their mounts are, of course, the dzikakai.

As if that weren’t enough, my people started quoting words and phrases from the language of a nearby kingdom — just like the English quote the French, n’est-ce pas. I eventually made myself a glossary, but don’t take that as a requirement. I’ve been living on the world of the Menhir, part time at least, for four decades, but even I get confused sometimes.


I’ve told this story before, but I can’t help repeating it. The scene, as I recall, was Westercon 33, Los Angeles, in 1980. A panel of writers and editors was discussing fantasy, and things had gotten out of hand. After a grueling discussion of what some magical breed of horses in Lord of the Rings ate, they had moved on to the subject of archaic language.

Somebody said it was okay, but don’t overdo it. Somebody said archaisms should be used sparingly, like spice in food. That went back and forth for several minutes until some wag in the audience stood up and asked, “Are you saying we can have archaic, and eat it too?”

I wish I had thought of that.

Marion Zimmer Bradley is well known for her fantasies, but she cut her teeth on science fiction. Her Darkover series was a massive best seller in its day. Darkover is a planet in our universe, populated by humans from a stranded starship, whose powers of the mind come (quite scientifically) from the pollen of psychotropic plants and from interbreeding with non-human natives. Lost and out of contact with their technological roots, they evolve a feudal society. They create an archaic world from a purely science fiction starting point.

Of course this is a reductionist view of a complex and massive series of novels and short stories. But it makes the point that archaism is easy to achieve. For archaism in fantasy, you could almost write a formula:


Of course it takes more than that to achieve good fantasy.

The time-before-known-time is an ancient idea. Atlantis and Mu fit into it. Tolkien’s Middle Earth came before recorded history. So did the world of Conan. The worlds of Michael Moorcock seem to be of this nature, but a closer reading will have to follow them sideways in time.

Alternate histories allow access to archaic worlds coexisting with our modern world. We can go to other 2017s, where the Native Americans are the only Americans, or Rome still rules, or Muhammed became an atheist. Take your pick, and if you can’t find what you like, you can write your own.

Remnant stories also let the past live on. Professor Challenger found dinosaurs still living deep in the Amazon. Hilton’s characters found Shangri-La. Even Rick Brant, in the favorite juvenile series from my childhood, found a lost remnant of an earlier age hidden in the Himalayas in The Lost City.

It would be logical to assume that you could go sideways in time, or backward, or to some lost valley and find dystopian, crowded cities, but that almost never happens. Archaism is about escaping modernity, crowding, complication, and life in cities. Back to simpler times. Back to the good old days. Back to the land of childhood. Back to the middle ages where knights in shiny armor rode pretty horses and rescued damsels with big bosoms and pearly white teeth from dastardly villains — or maybe from dragons.

Does anybody believe this? Of course not. Does anybody want to believe? Of course. And in the friction generated when those two truths rub together, the fire of archaism is born.

So our hero goes back (or sideways) and he/she finds the land of her/his heart’s desire and it isn’t what she/he expected at all. But it isn’t bad. There are problems to overcome, heartaches to endure, and villainy to face, but so what? That’s true in Portland, and Tempe, and New York City as well. In the new/old world  there are beauties and wonders, in addition to troubles. And it’s probably green, with trees and meadows, even if it also has rain and snow instead of eternal sunshine.

Above all, there aren’t any traffic jams. And the cell phone never rings.

Wait a minute. I’ll get my backpack, and we can go.

369. Fantasy World Building (2)

When you are ready to build your own fantasy world, you might consider these four things: tone, magic, language, and the concept of the archaic (found in posts today, yesterday, and tomorrow).

Continuing the concept of magic . . .

Christianity, in earlier centuries, saw witches as wielders of power which they obtained by pacts with Satan. Harmful as they were, witches had no power of their own. In many dark fantasies, the searcher after power obtains his heart’s desire from some greater being who is, in essence, a Satanic stand-in. Such Faustian bargains never end well.

Well, almost never. Martin does turn the tables on Satan in Robert Bloch’s That Hell-Bound Train.

Magic, in fantasy writing, often goes unexplained. The talisman in The Monkey’s Paw is understood by the reader without elaboration, just as a reader of westerns doesn’t need an explanation of how a six-gun works.

It is quite usual for a fantasy hero to have inborn power. Harry Potter was a wizard born of wizards. Ged is an unknown until his power is discovered by a mage. Corwin is a son of Amber.

It is equally usual to concentrate on the education of a wizard, or mage, or dziai. Ged went to Roke, Harry Potter went to Hogwarts, and my Tidac took two books to learn how to use his power because he had no mentor. His father never learned, and it destroyed him.

Can we have fantasy without magic? Probably not. Pavane is an alternate universe science fiction or an alternate history novel, but its tone makes it read like fantasy, except for the absence of magic. What seems to be magic in one chapter, may just be a dying dream; it isn’t made clear to the reader. For me, this places Pavane on the borderline between genres.

On the other hand, Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories are all about magic, but their system of magic is so comprehensively worked out that they read like science fiction.

I know that my Menhir story, in its infancy, before I really knew what it was going to be about, read like a quasi-medieval world. Slowly I came to grips with how the powers of every soul are affixed to menhirs at death, making menhirs into gestalt beings which become repositories of power that can be tapped, at peril, by men of power. Only then did magic come into the world of the menhir. And only then did it begin to read as fantasy.


“Up sword,” sayeth Sir Gallant, “lest I cleave thee where thou standest.”

Yeah, that’s pretty bad, and it has been a long time since I’ve seen that kind of fake-ancient language used in fantasy, except as a joke.

Language in fantasy is both a necessary tool, and a dangerous one. You can’t just throw in some thees and thous and -ests, but you also can’t speak in modern, colloquial English. Simple formality is the easiest way out. Even Zelazny, for all his smart-ass-with-a-sword characters, wrote with intelligence and a great deal of formality. If you want your characters to speak slang, you have to invent slang appropriate to their world, and that takes some effort.

Remember, whatever language your characters speak, even if you are setting your fantasy in early England, no one on Earth speaks that language today. In my fantasy world of the Menhir there are three languages in play, and a mid-sea island has a bastard language drawn from all three. It doesn’t matter. The book gets translated into English, whatever language the characters are speaking.

Whatever your genre, you are likely to have characters from different levels of society. Whether you are writing about nomads from the desert encountering the Pasha of Nevermore, or a Bostonian talking to a southern slave in 1845, you need to find a way to make your characters sound different from modern America, and from each other, but still be comprehensible. And it needs to sound natural. ‘Taint easy.

Languages – note the difference – are also dangerous, but at least you don’t have to invent one if you don’t want to. Tolkien did, to a degree far in excess of the needs of his stories. Almost no one else ever does. language continues tomorrow

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334. Making Videos for Cyan

I know from visiting your websites, that a lot, maybe most, of you either are or want to be writers. I’ve talked about some of the mechanics of that, especially in posts 133 and 134. During the last month, I’ve learned some more about how books are marketed in the age of the internet. I’ve had to make videos.

That proved harder than I thought it would, partly because of technology. Don’t think I’m a Luddite – I’ve been a computer nut since 1986 – but I don’t own a video camera. i don’t have kids to record as they grow, and I have no interest is seeing myself moving about on the computer screen.

Most of those who make videos to promote their books do so on their smart phones. I don’t have a smart phone. It is my firm belief that Alexander Graham Bell was an emissary of the Devil. I communicate the way God intended, by email, where I can correct my mistakes before I push send.

I finally used the camera built into my Mac. It makes a shaky, Skype-like picture, but that works well enough if you hold still and go into talking-head mode.

I didn’t want to ramble, so I wrote a script and tried out some videos. They stank (that’s the grammatically correct word that morphed into stunk about twenty years ago). It turns out that a glib, casual, conversational tone takes a hell of a lot of rewrites. I should have remembered that. I had to learn it two years ago when I wrote my first posts. I don’t mean numbers 1, 2, 3 . . .. I mean the ones you never saw because I trash-canned them.

Writing two masters theses and a bunch of novels did not prepare me to write posts. I had to learn a whole new, casual style. This month I learned that written-casual is not the same as spoken-casual — even if it is written as a script before it is spoken. It took quite a few tries to make the transition.

Eventually I made three videos for Brian at EDGE and he will put them on Youtube. They are an introduction to Cyan, the story of why I wrote Cyan, and a reading from Cyan. The first is already up; click here.

I’ve also tacked on the script I used in the Introduction to Cyan.


Hi. Welcome to my world, or at least to one of them. I’ve always been a fan of near future novels of exploration. There are so many things about traveling at sub-light speed that make for a great story.

Besides, it won’t be long until scientists have charted the actual planets around all the nearby stars. Then we won’t be able to make up our own planets.

Put those ideas together and you have Cyan, which is the name of me newest novel and the name of the planet that it takes place on.

In the year 2080 a crew of five men and five women, scientists all, set out for Procyon where they find a planet that stands straight up in orbit, with bands of unvarying climates. About 45 degrees north, is paradise.

But paradise with teeth — virgin, wild, beautiful, but very dangerous. Keir, our crewleader’s task is to keep his fellow explorers alive. He’s good at his job, but on a planet crowded with predators, that may not be enough.

For these scientists from vastly overcrowded earth, after years confined within the starship, the beauty and emptiness of Cyan is intoxicating.

They have one year to decide if Cyan is suitable for colonists, and it turns out to be perfect. But then one of the scientists picks up a flaked stone. This is not a natural occurrence. Someone, or some thing, has made it.

The explorers have discovered the Cyl.

The Cyl are a stone age group. They look nothing like man and their intelligence is low, but they are about to become much more. Evolution moves quickly under Procyon’s intense radiation, and the Cyl are poised to make the leap to full intelligence.

Earth needs Cyan to ease its massive population, and the Cyl need to be left alone to find their own destiny. Lines are drawn among the explorers and the resolution of the problem threatens to tear them apart.


When you get your copy of Cyan, you will see that this introduction actually only covers the first fifth of the novel. Giving a full summary would have made the video far too long.