Because the love of my life is crazy about language our household subscribes to the magazine of the Society for the Dutch Language, Onze Taal. Last year’s September issue included a shortened version of a presentation by poet and classicist Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer on ‘Who owns language?’. He made some observations that got me thinking on thinking about language. His take on things is nothing new, but as he is a poet some of his language is.
Before delving into those thoughts, Dutch blues to illustrate the permanent change and cross-overs, between languages, cultures and sentiments. Ultimately we swim the same ocean, whatever our river of life.
Pfeijffer starts off with observing that language can be described but hardly proscribed. Its constant changes are a given: language is a living organism that constantly, slowly but inescapably, changes like a shape shifter between the carelessness of our fast tongue and hasty jaws. Certainties defy moral judgements. Weather is neither inherently good nor bad, it just is. While the buffet is being served in the adjoining room, the proscriptive linguist sits alone at his table shaking his head. Next door is where all the action is. There, endless sweets are available, plenty to describe and discuss. But he doesn’t see it, because he is angry that none have joined his table. The question Pfeijffer asks is: when we know this is the way to look at language, why we keep proscribing?
His answer: it’s not a linguistic but a social issue. The ‘proper’ way to use language is the sociolect of those who wield power. The ones who can offer our kids a job, a career and a living, and that’s why we want them to talk like them. That’s why we teach them their ‘native’ tongue at school.
For anyone with a social science education, this should be stating the obvious, but the obvious needs continues attention because nothing is more tenacious than common sense. And in my ‘individualist’ culture, the social embeddedness of everything may be academically theorized but when push comes to shove it looses out, and disappears into the background. Social life is all about hierarchy and status, about insiders and outsiders, about social distinctions, nepotistic networks and reproduction of class.
Let me give just one example, that in no way stands out, I just happen to have a short video about it bookmarked:
Now, in my book, this reality is like the weather – which, mind you, is not to condone all the absurdities resulting from it, but that’s a different subject – and the question is what practical conclusions to draw from it. I’m sure the list of possibilities is endless, but Pfeijffer self-servingly brings up one as his personal answer to the title question: poets own language. His argument goes like this. Proper language is elite language, but whatever education transmits, it isn’t quality. The large majority of Dutch talk like they dance, uninterested, hands in their pockets, bumping into each other. The Dutch cannot dance. They talk without any sense of elegance. (If I were a female, I would feel offended, but the imagery is certainly appropriate for my sex).
Our language resembles a neglected garden running wild. It needs care and maintenance and we best leave that to the real professional. Like an experienced horticulturist who loves his trade, knows every single plant, knows which plants tolerate each other and which don’t, knows the taste of earth, air and water, and listens to the rustle of each individual leaf, a poet knows language. He is the right person to care for it and maintain it, because he knows the tastes of all words, and the colours of the sounds. He knows which words can fertilise each other and which ones make each other wither. He knows how language can most elegantly be arranged along the pliable rootstocks of grammatical constructions. He can dust the language and make it shine again. He can make it healthy and vigorous. Poets own language.
Leave it to the experts is a dangerous argument, and I don’t support it. But what I take from his plea is two things. We shouldn’t fool kids about what learning proper language is about. They are entitled to the truth. And they can handle it, I’m sure, as long as they’re shown that seriously engaging with language is ultimately about rhythm, beauty, attunement and other things that leave none of us untouched.