Language wars

Ilona has an ongoing, good-natured conflict with a friend, Bob. Bob thinks the best English is English as it was spoken in the past. This messy business of language evolving with the passing generations doesn’t sit well with him.

Ilona is not above a little mockery:

So when in time would you draw the line and say “Ha! The language was PERFECT then, and that’s how we should speak it henceforth forevermore”? Mid-thirteeth century? Elizabethan (that would be Shakespeare’s era)? 18th-century? When was the language entirely perfect, and everything since then has been downhill?

Language is a great example of tradition and transformation in action. Re tradition:  think about etymology for a moment. For example, here’s Webster’s etymology of the word “gist”:

ME giste < OFr, abode, point at issue < from gesir, to lie < L jacere, to lie; sense infl. by Anglo-Fr legal phrase l’action gist, lit., the action lies.

This is a word with a long tradition behind it:  derived from a Middle English word, which was derived from the Old French, which was derived from the Latin, under the influence of an Anglo-French legal phrase. Word usage is traditional.

Re transformation:  language does evolve as the decades succeed one another. And in the past century, as technological breakthroughs have revolutionized human society, language has changed rapidly to keep pace.

As language changes, there is a risk that we will cease to understand one another. Consider this classic scene from Airplane!:  the flight attendant doesn’t speak jive, but Beaver Cleaver’s mother offers to interpret.


The adaptability of English is one of its strengths. Even so, Bob is hardly alone in his perception that the language is degenerating all around him. Robert Fulford, writing in the National Post, explains how Tim Horton’s (a donut shop which is iconic in Canada) lost its apostrophe:

Early on, his coffee shops used an apostrophe in their name; dedicated punctuation fans claim that even now, in Hamilton, you can find original Horton’s with the apostrophe still proudly in place. These deserve designation as national heritage sites, remnants of a finer, more thoughtful and better punctuated Canada.

Like many traditions, the Horton apostrophe was a victim (so goes the accepted story) of Quebec nationalism. When Quebec decided that commercial signs should eliminate their possessive apostrophes, in the French manner, most companies hurried to comply.

[…] For the sake of efficiency and consistency [Tim Horton’s] decided to have all their outlets carry precisely the same logo, the one required in Quebec. Sea to sea, most Tim outlets meekly surrendered their apostrophes. The tragic result is that young English-speaking Canadians eat their Timbits and sip their double-double beneath signage that defies ancient tradition.

It was Fulford’s use of the word “tradition” that inspired this post.

I agree with Fulford:  careful attention to punctuation, including the use of apostrophes, is falling into disuse. As Fulford writes,

This is a defeat for clear expression. The purpose of punctuation is to clarify the written word. Without it, we are less able to understand each other.

Similarly, I can be a stickler for the precise use of words.

Still — on the whole, I agree with Ilona. English would be impoverished if we were to confine ourselves to words from the 16th century. Consider words like introvert and extrovert:  they enable us to think about ourselves in ways that otherwise, we could not. Or a word like black hole:  not only does it describe a fascinating phenomenon of the physical word, it has also developed a metaphorical usage. For example, depression as a psychic black hole.

Language evolves. That’s a good thing:  ye language curmudgeons of the world, deal with it!

Tradition vs. nostalgia

Do people who hold fast to a tradition necessarily live in the past? Not according to Edmund Burke, a conservative icon:

What distinguishes Burke from the French Revolutionaries is not his attachment to things past, but his desire to live fully in the present, to understand it in all its imperfections, and to accept it as the only reality offered to us. …

Burke … recognized the distinction between a backward-looking nostalgia, which is but another form of modern sentimentality, and a genuine tradition, which grants us the courage and the vision with which to live in the modern world.

(Quoted by Peter Lawler at Postmodern Conservative, citing Scruton’s A Political Philosophy.)

One of the things that marks me as Canadian is my tendency to seek the middle ground. In this case, I think there are two extremes to be avoided:

  • Discarding tradition as worthless and useless in the modern context; or
  • Holding so rigidly to tradition that we cease to live authentically in the present.

The middle ground is the terrain Burke sets out to claim for conservatives:  utilizing tradition as a resource for living well in the present.

In fundamentalist circles, Burke’s position would be derided as “liberal”. People with a “liberal” belief system both hold fast to a body of tradition yet maintain a standpoint of critical detachment from it.

I agree with the quote:  the present is the only reality available to us. The mistake made by fundamentalists (whether Christian, Muslim, or Jewish) is to hold onto their body of tradition so rigidly that they repudiate modernity and become alienated from present reality.

Thus I like Burke’s distinction between nostalgia and tradition. As I see it:

  • fundamentalists repudiate the present and become captive to nostalgia;
  • modernists repudiate tradition and lose the capacity for critical discernment of the present; and
  • those of us who retain a body of tradition, while reserving the right to critique it, potentially have the best of both worlds.

As Jesus said, “every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Mt. 13:52, NIV).

The photo, by Kirsty Wigglesworth of Associated Press, is from this week’s news:

“Part of a recently discovered hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold is displayed at Birmingham Museum in Birmingham, England Thursday, Sept. 24, 2009. Amateur treasure hunter Terry Herbert was prowling English farmland in Staffordshire, England, with a metal detector when he stumbled upon what has been described as the largest Anglo-Saxon treasure ever discovered, a massive collection of gold and silver crosses, sword decorations and other items, British archaeologists said Thursday. One expert said the treasure would revolutionize understanding of the Anglo-Saxons, a Germanic people who ruled England from the fifth century until the Norman conquest in 1066.”

Beatles remasters: the verdict

My first comment on the remasters is this:  I haven’t been able to buy them! 😦

It seems that EMI Canada underestimated the demand for the discs — which, after all, most of us already own. I was first in line at HMV (Rideau Centre, Ottawa) when the store opened on the big day. But all the units of the stereo set had been set aside for customers who pre-ordered. It was a similar story at a local, independent retailer (Compact Music). Likewise at the other HMVs I called, including an HMV in Winnipeg.

So I placed an order with They happily accepted my order, but they still haven’t shipped the set to me. In other words, doesn’t have any product in stock, either. (The individual discs are available in stores — just not the complete set.)

Nonetheless, I am able to provide you with my verdict.

One of my friends was able to get his hands on a set in Toronto. Through him, I’ve had a chance to compare the 1987 release with the 2009 re-release. In my opinion, this CNET review is a little sceptical, but not completely unreasonable:

Betray the truth, but don’t betray the revolution

Quote for the day:

This is the language and logic of Leninism. There is no truth or falsehood comrades, there is only service to the revolution or betrayal of the revolution.

David Frum:  former George W. Bush speech writer, now a pariah to his neo-conservative ex-colleagues — and, lamentably, a Canadian — lays a beating on a fellow Republican water carrier.

Power to the planet

Here’s an interesting example of tradition and transformation in pop culture.

The other day, for the first time, I saw someone wearing a “Power To The Planet” t-shirt.

Power To the Planet

Most people will immediately catch the reference to a 1960s slogan, “Power to the people”. The t-shirt (and the campaign) both alludes to the slogan and simultaneously subverts it. (Hence, tradition and transformation.)

Once upon a time, it seemed that we needed to divert power from governments and patriarchs and redirect it to ordinary people. But now, from an eco perspective, people are the problem. We need to divert power from the people and redirect it to the planet. Thus the familiar slogan has been refitted to a new social consciousness.

The Power to the planet campaign is the brainchild of a corporation, Element:  a manufacturer of skateboards, clothes, and shoes. Not surprisingly, some folks are sceptical:

HOLY CRAP. […] Anybody ever heard the term GREENWASH? I would be so ashamed to be one of those 60 people that they fooled into being a part of this campaign.

Maybe that’s right. Corporations are extremely sophisticated about manipulating people into buying their products. In this case, the corporate branding begins with the name, Element. (Remember high school physics?) This company wants you to view them as eco-friendly.

It’s marketing, pure and simple. But it’s getting the eco-friendly message out there, and that’s a good thing. As St. Paul once wrote,

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. […] What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. (Php. 1:15,18, ESV)

I’m reminded of the United Colors of Benetton campaign:


A white baby suckling at the breast of a black woman? Think of this image the next time you’re listening to jazz, or even rock and roll. Many aspects of “white” culture are descended from Africa.

It’s a powerful message. And it’s a Benetton advertisement.

Again:  I’m reminded of Dove’s counter cultural message to everyday women:  you are beautiful just as you are.

This message has been brought to you by Dove, a manufacturer of soaps and anti-aging products. But truth has a power independent of its messenger.

Consumers must be savvy. If Dove, Benetton, or Element has corporate practices which contravene the values of their ad campaigns, consumers should hold them accountable. Perhaps by not buying their products.

Even so:  truth remains true even if it is violated by the very people who proclaim it.

(Why am I suddenly thinking of the Gospel again?)

The Beatles’ masterpieces restored

Today, the Beatles’ entire catalogue — thirteen discs,1 plus a double-CD “Past Masters” collection of non-album tracks — is being re-released.

Beatles box set

Everyone is describing this as a “remastering” of the discs, which were transferred to CDs in 1987. That’s twenty-two years ago, when digital technology was in its infancy. The discs haven’t been upgraded since. Their inferior sound quality reflects the technological limitations of the era.

Reading various media reports, it seems to me that “remastering” is a misnomer:

Unlike the 2006 special release “Love,” for instance, these weren’t remixed from the original Abbey Road multitrack tapes. Rather, a team of engineers performed meticulous cleanup on various stereo and mono masters, both literally and figuratively: Dust was removed from the old tapes, electrical clicks and hiss excised, EQ and other filters tastefully applied.

The engineers cleaned up existing masters; they didn’t go back to the source tapes. Why? Because they didn’t want to risk offending fans by producing a new mix:  after all, many of us have memorized every note of the Beatles’ music.

By all accounts, the new versions (remastered or not) represent a dramatic improvement in sound quality. “Restored” is the appropriate descriptor for the process. After all that’s the word we use when technicians delicately rehabilitate a centuries-old painting. As Newsweek recognizes, that’s precisely what has been done to the Beatles CDs:

The overall effect, immediately obvious when you slip one of the remastered discs into a decent stereo, is like scraping a layer of grime from the Sistine Chapel. Abbey Road’s remasterers resisted the common urge to scrub every extraneous noise, inflate the overall volume, or remix the tracks, leaving us, as a result, with the truest representation yet of how these songs were supposed to sound.

Does sound quality matter?

Let’s be honest:  only audiophiles and obsessives care that much about sound quality. Rather, the vast majority of remastered discs will sell to ordinary fans forking over hundreds of dollars to update their libraries even though they weren’t particularly dissatisfied with the old Beatles CDs.

Speak for yourself, Mr. Romano! I don’t have a good enough ear to make the grade as an audiophile. I’m just a music lover. Even so, I can distinguish superior sound quality from inferior sound quality, and I appreciate the difference.

A case in point:  I have always thought that Help! stood out as having better sound quality than many of the other Beatles CDs. This week, I learned that there was a problem with the EMI master tape of Help!. As a result, when the engineers converted it to CD in 1987, they went back to the original tapes and made a new master:

The CD’s released in 1987 were not from the original master’s, with the exception of Help and Rubber Soul which were re-mixed from the original four track multitracks. (the two track mixes were deemed unusable by George Martin due to their condition)

Help! was remastered from the original tapes in 1987:  that explains why it sounds better. My ears were not deceiving me, even though I don’t claim to be an audiophile.

I, for one, plan to buy the new edition of the CDs. (In stereo, not the mono versions — although the mono set is selling like crazy.) I have always been disappointed by the sound of the “White Album” and A Hard Days’ Night, in particular.

I expect that those of us who listen closely to our music are in for a real treat!

1Please Please Me (1963); With The Beatles (1963); A Hard Day’s Night (1964); Beatles For Sale (1964); Help! (1965); Rubber Soul (1965); Revolver (1966); Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967); Magical Mystery Tour (1967) The Beatles (The White Album) (1968); Yellow Submarine (1969); Abbey Road (1969); Let It Be (1970).

Previous Older Entries