What I Read: ‘You Are What You Speak’ by Robert Lane Greene


One of the reviews of this book faults Greene for writing about linguistics without being a linguist. I don’t find the same fault in the pages here. Certainly, this has the density one would expect from an Economist writer, but don’t let that fool you.
As an English major and English teacher who has been thinking about these things for some time, the initial introduction to prescriptivism and descriptivism did much to act as a refresher for the topics and lay the foundation of the different global perspectives of the book.
From a historical understanding of the resurrection of Hebrew to the formation of modern Turkish (an subsequent distance from pre-1930 Turkish texts), I’m walking away from this book with much richer and deeper understanding of language and it’s formation around the world.
Perhaps most helpful for me was Greene’s clear love of language. If there were any impediment created by his lack of training as a linguist, his love of language makes up for it handily.
Reading about language from the perspective of one who is so clearly curious and in love with language shapes the book as a tool for infectious love of language.
If you’re curious about language, read this. If you’re passionate about language, read this. If you are hungry for a appropriately-dense text acting as a primer to understanding linguistics, read this. It’s not a book for everyone, but it’s definitely a book for those who love and are fascinated by language.

cross-posted at http://goodreads.com/mrchase

Things I Know 199 of 365: I won’t be mourning cursive’s passing

It was in second grade that Mrs. Kelly attempted to teach me to write in cursive. By some strange fluke, I was the only left-handed student in the class. I remember sitting at the back of the classroom filling in math worksheets while she led the rest of the class through complex curlicues and how to connect the capital H to the lower-case E.

Later, when Mrs. Kelly had finished the lesson for the others and they were diligently working, she would spend a couple minutes with me.

She made certain I had the basics, but I wouldn’t exactly call it differentiated instruction.

As a result, my handwriting has always endeavored to be, but never quite reached the status of, penmanship.

So, when I read this piece on Indiana’s decision to halt the mandated teaching of cursive in Hoosier schools and this impassioned piece from Vancouver mourning it’s death, I sat open-gobbed for a few moments.

I wasn’t alone.

A little bit of digging showed slews of comments wherever the story turned up. People are feeling some kind of way about Indiana’s decision.

I’d write, “Indiana’s decision to kill cursive,” by my handwriting took care of that long ago.

Because of that, I don’t write in cursive. When I take notes, it’s printed and shorthand and all over the page. It’s nothing that could be contained by the tri-lined paper of elementary school. When I return to it, though, to remind myself what I learned or heard, I know what I meant. If I need to share it, I type it. And, never, do I sit at the keyboard thinking how much better it would be if I were writing a cursive version of anything.

Doug Kennedy, quoted by Cincinnati’s WKRC 12, said. “When you’re born, someone signs your birth certificate. When you’re married, you have to sign your marriage license. When you die, someone’s going to sign your death certificate. All these things are important aspects of your life.”


I’m with Kennedy. Those signatures happen.

But they didn’t always.

Did we think they would?

Without cursive, people won’t stop being born, getting married or dying. We’ll just signify it some other way.

Most commonly, those opposed to the optionalization (with no more cursive, it’s a world gone mad and anyone can make up words) question how these poor children will sign their names to documents as they grow older.

I don’t have any other answer to that question than, we’ll figure something out.

And that’ll be fine.

Language is an arbitrary, symbolic devise that moves to fit the needs and tools of the times and cultures in which it is being used.

I love calligraphy. It is an art I have all the more appreciation for because I do not practice it. When communicating, I want my medium to make my message as accessible as possible. Indiana has taken a step toward that objective.

Writing for The Vancouver Sun with a full-throated defense of cursive, Naomi Lakritz had this to say:

There’s one more crucial reason kids need to know how to write longhand.

As any teacher will attest, writing things down helps children remember. Typing at a keyboard does not. There is something about the act of writing that makes information stick.

Sure. It’s true.

We know having kids learn by teaching and doing are even better conduits to building the synaptic relays of memory, so maybe we can cut the lectures requiring them to take the notes Lakritz worries about and have them learn by doing – maybe in an art class.

I’m not worried children won’t be able to read cursive. I’m worried they won’t know how to read.

The two are related, but not interdependent.

Things I Know 184 of 365: I’ve got too many friends and not enough words

Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!

– Eliza Doolittle

I might be in a little over my head.

I just woke up my phone to check the time.

Twenty-one people are waiting for my next move on Words with Friends.

Every time I get the chance, I chip away at my waiting games. On a good run, I can knock out five turns before the rest of life jumps in. But they keep. Coming. Back.

They keep challenging me.

I’m not even sure how it got this bad. I remember sharing my user name with maybe three people, never 21.

I’m not even very good. Of the 21 games queued up, I’m losing around 80% of them. Still, I play.

Then there are the invites at the end of the game. Just as my phone alerts me to my defeat and I click “re-match,” that same friend begins yet another game with me. In the face of such double booking, a rational person would resign from one game and keep the other game in play.

That’s just what they want you to do. Admit defeat before every playing a move? No, sir, thank you very much. If I’m to lose, it will be a beautiful and bloody battle.

Then there are the cheaters.

You know who you are…cough…Robbie…cough. Cheaters I’ve perhaps taught for two years in a row and with whose vocabularies I am well familiar. “Shoon?” Really?

Again, the rational person would resign the game knowing their vocabulary was reduced to a switchblade in the face of the nuclear armament of online Words with Friends cheating sites.

Not I.

For losses to a cheater are the sweetest losses of all. If I lose to a cheater, I can tell myself that I would otherwise have won, which, ipso facto, makes me the winner…who lost.

I’m not losing these games because I’m stupid. I’ve got words in my head. I’ve been gearing up for all 21 of these battles since I was in middle school and thought accusing friends of having “minuscule vernaculars” was the best blend of adolescent humor and linguistic insult one was likely to find.

At issue is my lack of strategy. I’m smart, but don’t play smartly. I like the words too much to toss them around like taudry tiles which have no more use to me than to help me score. Oh, I’ll score, but when I do, it will be because I’ve shaped and sculpted my letters into a Monet of syllables. Grown men will weep and children will feel a deep and abiding sense of hope.

And then, I will lose.

Things I Know 124 of 365: Literacy brings democracy

I read this piece aloud to one of my G11 classes this afternoon.

We all sat in a sort of oval on the floor and I read it from start to finish. The students had only one direction: Mark anything you have a question about.

In case you didn’t click the link, some things you should know: the article was about Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Russian literature, Russia’s role in the Russo-Turkish War and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky’s disagreement over whether or not Russia should have stepped in. Oh, also, it is about Libya and the possible negative economic consequences of American participation in the military humanitarian aid mission in Libya.

A little light reading.

My interest in examining the article wasn’t that my students have a deep understanding of the Russo-Turkish War, nor was I particularly worried they did or did not see its relevance to contemporary history.

I wanted my students to see the text because it was dense and difficult. In two sentences, we saw three words that had appeared on our vocabulary quizzes during the year.

In a moment of frustration, one student commented she thought the article was “the stupidest thing ever.”

I replied she should research Crystal Clear Pepsi before she made that statement, and asked her why she thought what she thought.

“He just writes it so it’s too hard and boring to understand.”

James Warner does some interesting and slippery things in his writing of the piece. These are techniques of linguistic subterfuge that disguise some of his deeper points and play off of the psychology of his readers.

In a text inspired by and commenting on US intervention in Libya, Warner mentions the country only once and never brings up President Obama. Warner does reference the Iraq War twice and directly refers to President Bush once.

“What kind of connections is he drawing by bringing up Libya, Iraq and President Bush, but leaving out President Obama?” I asked.

A few students’ faces flashed with the “hmmmmmm” moment.

I asked how many students had seen any James Bond movies. Several hands went up. “Where are Bond villains often from?” I asked.

“Russia!” they answered.

“So what’s the implication of saying the United States is acting like Russia?”

More “hmmmmmm” moments.

They might not know about the Cold War, but 007 has taught them Russia’s not to be trusted.

For those of my students who struggle the most with reading, my job is to help them read the lines on the page and to find more pages with more lines they might be interested in reading when they believe the world doesn’t have any of those.

For all of my students, my job is to help them detect semantic snake oil salesmen and read between the lines on the page. They are growing up in a world of The Magic Bullet, FOX News, challenges to collective bargaining, and Michael Moore. They need to read smarter.

One student commented the article sounded intelligent because of all the expensive vocabulary.


I want to help each of them build the linguistic haggling skills to determine if the price of understanding is equal to the value of what is being said.

Each time they step up to a piece of writing unprepared to read it, they’re left out of the democratic process a little more.

Things I Know 123 of 365: I teach students who learn

By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth.

– George Carlin

A friend recently told me about another teacher who was explaining the merits of her school and listed among them the fact that the faculty referred to the children in their care as “learners” rather than students. The implication was that such a shift in language meant the students were learning more now that they’d a clearer idea of their role in the building.

Thank goodness we’ve got that cleared up.

I like student and its history. Sure, a student is one who studies. The real fun comes from the etymology of study. Traced back, it finds its roots in the Latin studere meaning “to be diligent.”

I want that for those in my classroom.

I’m a fan of learner as well. Coming from learn, it finds its home in the Proto-Germanic liznojan meaning “to follow or find the track.”

I want that for those in my classroom as well.

To help them be both diligent and follow the track, I’ve drafted a schedule. Mondays and Wednesdays, I’ll use “learner when referring to my kids. Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’ll call them students.

Fridays will alternate. E-mails and other correspondences will adhere to the schedule depending on the date they were first drafted.

I’m sure that will improve the learning (and studying).


Maybe it doesn’t matter what I call my kids.

Or, it matters, but not quite as much as how and why I teach them.

I can see the draw of shifting the language of the classroom to learner. It provides modern window dressing to teaching. When the roof’s leaking, though, I’m not so certain how much time we have to admire the curtains.

I’ll put it in the same category as claims of wanting to good for children and reform education, but making no mention of pedagogy.

From time to time, I will call my students “writers,” “readers,” or “thinkers.” Sometimes, I’ll refer to them as all three in quick succession.

On particularly boisterous mornings, I will refer to them as “beautiful people.”

I’ve even been known to refer to a mass of 33 high school students as “hey.”

While I understand a close reading of any of my classroom rhetoric could produce some interesting theses as to my relationship with my kids, it won’t get you to an understanding of my pedagogy.

This was my worry as my friend told the story of the faculty and its learners. It is a gesture, and gestures can be funny things. Magicians will use gestures to divert your attention from what they’re really doing, and docents will use gestures to help guide you on the correct path.

I’ve no room for more educational magicians.

I’m all for those who are diligently helping our students learn.

Things I Know 98 of 365: The way we talk about the way we talk matters

Language shapes the way we think and determines what we can think about.

– Benjamin Lee Whorf

My sister Rachel is working toward her degree in English education and her minor in linguistics. She asked me tonight to take a look at a paper due in one of her classes later this week. It’s one of those moments that keeps me feeling useful as a big brother.

Rachel’s considering Zora Neal Hurston’s adherence to dialectical English when she was working as an anthropologist documenting early African American folktales.

I’ve not thought so much and so academically about the topic since I wrote my own term paper on African American Vernacular English (called Ebonics at the time).

This got me thinking.

Every once in a while, I’ll hear a student correct or chastise another student for saying “toof” instead of “tooth” or some other dialectically attributable difference.

Whenever I witness these moments, I take them as opportunities for discussion – the chance to show how understanding language and its connection to culture matters. They’ve been some of the richest culture-based conversations I’ve had in the classroom.

I wonder if waiting for the odd teachable moment might not be underserving in my role as an English teacher.

Colleagues in the Spanish department help their students understand dialectical variations across multiple Spanish-speaking countries and even regionally within those countries.

English teachers, though, remains tremendously staid in our approach to helping our students explore language. We not only ignore the international variations across English-speaking countries, we teach as though intense variations do not exist across America as well.

There is what is right and there is everything else.

Much of the time, the everything else is what our students are speaking in their homes, and intentionally or not, we make it seem wrong or less than.

I’m not advocating the abandonment of formal academic language or the prestige dialect as many of my undergraduate professors referred to it.

Instead, I’m suggesting room exists at the linguistic table to help our students understand the variation and complexity inherent in language.

To do so would be a radically complicated shift in approach. For one, classroom teachers would need to better show the cultural sensitivity we so often pride ourselves on when selecting texts.

Teaching Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God for its authentic dialectical style is far from building lessons and discussions around the dialects students walk into our classrooms practicing and then building bridges from those dialects to the academic English we’ve been preaching for generations.

If we want our students to interact with the world – to be global citizens – we might need to help them become better national citizens first. To do that, we might need to help ourselves do the same.

Language is complex and intensely tied to culture. America is complex and intensely cultural. Perhaps we could be better diplomats.

Things I Know 66 of 365: English is hard

Viewed freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all.

– Walt Whitman

“Mr. Chase, am I getting an interim for your class?”

Interims are notifications the district requires we send home if a student is earning a “D” or “F” at midterm.


“Ok, good. I didn’t think so, but I wanted to be sure. I’m getting one in math, and I told them, but they understood because math’s hard. If I were getting an interim in English, they’d go crazy.”

And he’s gone and done it.

English is difficult. Really. I swear.

I don’t just mean remembering how to spell “recommend,” “accomplish,” and “necessary” (though that takes a definite level of skill).

English is difficult on a user level.

I struggle with communicating the intricacies of the language to my students. For the vast majority, it’s the language they’ve been learning since birth. Economics, biochemistry, pre-calculus – these all came online later in their development. They are foreign languages.

Not only are they foreign, but communicating in them requires a specificity of detail my students often fail to see in their consumption and production of language.

Though Mark Twain may have said, “The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug,” students are often not interested in such precision of language. Moreover, they don’t consider the construction of meaning difficult.

But language is tough. To take an idea from the ephemeral and frame it in with words, send those words out into the world and then process the reaction – that is linguistic chemistry.

I’m not talking what my student could be doing with language; I’m talking about what they are doing with language.

I wish they could see it.

They look at a page with arbitrarily connected ticks and curves, they translate those ticks and curves to individual pieces of meaning, they string those individual pieces of meaning together, they connect those strings to their own experiences and then they store them away to connect to later strings or experiences.

I’m not just saying this is what they do with Kafka or Joyce or Woolf. This is what they do when they read a cereal box.

It’s what they do with one another. They take the laxidasically imprecise language of the colloquial, put it up against more formal internal language charts, find meaning and respond with the properly coded answer. To complicate things further colloquialism are shifting at lightning speeds.


Still, it’s math that has the street cred for being the T-Birds in our educational production of Grease. English is as easy as Cha Cha DiGregorio.

Even there, in the last sentence, I created an intertextual comparison that required the understanding of multiple meanings of “easy.” Admittedly, the joke loses something in its explanation.

This is the idea Taylor Mali is playing with when he says, “I make them show all of their work in math and hide it in English.”

Perhaps that’s the answer.

The next time I have a student write a summary of what they read, I’ll have them start at the morphemic and phonemic levels.

“Well, first, I realized I was looking at the letter I. Then I noticed there was a space after the letter, so I took that to imply the letter was representative of a singular idea…”

“I’m going to stop you there for a moment. When you say, ‘I realized I was looking at the letter I,’ what gave it away?”

This could be fun.

Things I Know 7 of 365: I can’t curse

Go ahead and swear—it might make you feel better…

– Jeffrey Hill, The English Blog

Words amaze me.

They always have.

Every once in a while, one of my students will ask me if I always knew I wanted to be an English teacher.

In my youngest years, I wanted to be an artist or a stand-up comedian.

In eighth grade, I picked a profession that gave me the better parts of both of those options.

I’ve been teaching for 8 years.

And, for as much as I am able to master and throw around words, one set has always given me trouble.

I can’t curse.

I blame my upbringing.

Every once in a while, my mom would let loose with a “You little shit,” but even then it was full of incredulity of me beating her at a game of Scrabble.

That’s a lie.

I never beat my mom at Scrabble.

When I got to college, I decided that part of the requisite re-inventing of myself would be taking ownership of the lexicon that had eluded me for so long.

Every once in a while, I’d throw out an f-bomb or some derivative thereof.

Usually, this was surrounding the playing of Mario Kart on the Gamecube.

After about a month, through a friendervention, I was asked to stop.

“You just can’t pull it off,” they told me.

“You’re too nice.”

It would have been the perfect moment to prove them wrong, but I couldn’t.

Just before winter break, one of my classes was studying Steven Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

I was reading it aloud.

At the top of one class, a student approached me, “Please don’t read the cuss words, Mr. Chase.”

Worried I’d offended him, I asked why not, if everything was ok.

“Oh, yeah. I love the book. I just don’t like to think of you saying those words.”

I’d been found out.

I’ve tried a few experiments in the intervening weeks.

On the phone with a friend, I’ll drop in a curse word in place of the adjective I’d actually been thinking.

The conversation has proceeded normally. Then, I collect data.

“Hey, do you remember when I cursed?”


“A few minutes ago, I cursed. Do you remember that?”

“Oh. Sure. Yeah.”

“Good. Did it sound authentic?”


“When I cursed, did it sound like someone who knows how to curse?”

“Um, I guess so.”


I’m getting better.

Still, I’ve had to come to the conclusion that, like French, this is a language I’ll likely never master.

I listen to the lady a few doors down yelling at our neighbors on the weekends and wonder at the brush with which she draws from her diverse pallet of expletives.

She is a foul-mouthed Jedi, and I envy her.

She’s Lenny Bruce, Sandra Bernhard and every episode of The Wire rolled into one.

Faced with unsatisfactory answers in conversation, she constructs linguistic cannons from her canon of vulgarity.

I’d be reduced to reason and likely get nowhere.

Still, I’m working on it – working damned hard.

…I’ve a long way to go.

There’s a grammar war in my brain

The Gist:

  • There are pedants and anti-pedants.
  • I don’t know which one I am.
  • I see value in both.
  • It makes being an English teacher difficult.

The Whole Story:

One of my favorite courses in college was Traditional and Non-Traditional Grammars with Professor Gerry Balls. I like thinking about how words work. Semantics, grammar and all the conventions that go along make up the calculus of language.

This is why I’ve been watching closely as discussion has been brewing about David Foster Wallace acolyte Amy McDaniel’s posting of the text of a worksheet from Wallace’s class. Saturday, my brain moved more with Chris Potts’ announcement of a challenge to McDaniel’s post by Jason Kottke who scored a 0 / 10 on Wallace’s quiz:

Kottke is a thoughtful, creative English prose stylist, and Wallace thought that these questions were basic ones that should be taught in any undergraduate class. Kottke seems to think the problem lies with him. I take a different view: this test is useless.

Here’s where I step back. I don’t know where I stand on this issue. I’ve read Wallace and Safire for years. My grandparents wouldn’t stand a story about “me and him” at the dinner table. I like it when my students ask if they may go to the bathroom.

But it makes me feel false and a little dirty.

In reality, I’m not a pedant.

Sure, I have pedantic tendencies, but it hurts to hold those ideas in hand with the knowledge we speak and write a living language. It’s alive and changing faster than I can follow given the accelerant of the ease of communication.

More than once, I’ve paused when a student’s sentence ended with a preposition. Do I push him to the right to walk the path of my grandparents, or do I make Professor Balls proud and accept the kid’s disregard for an ancient and archaic rule?

Thinking of grammar as the calculus of language offers me a sense of security and set way to think and talk about the world. It also prevents me from speaking the same language as those we’ll be leaving the world to. I’m not sure which one I value most.

In her explanation of the thinking behind the quiz, McDaniel writes, “Probably the most important reason is to avoid ambiguity. We want to make our meaning clear.” I can get behind that. I’m just not sure rules get us there.