This subject has been a lifelong passion of mine. I have been working on it my entire life, it seems. I discovered language and the power it brings when I was still in diapers. Once I asked my mother why there was nothing written in my ‘baby book’ after I was eighteen months old. Up until then, it was all about how cute and sweet and alert, etc. Mother said, “That is when you started talking.” Now, what her remark said to me is that there is a lot of preparation that takes place before a child speaks his first words. Between those first words and the time that a child starts school there are years of intense observation and thoughtful practice
In school I learned that language is rationed. We were not allowed to read whatever we wanted and we were not allowed to use certain words. There were more rules for language than for anything else. Certain accents and ways of making sounds were proscribed. There were rigorous rules for the formation of letters but no one seemed to know why. There were certain words that we couldn’t say but no one seemed to know why. There were very precise ways of making sounds. Again, no one would say why. I was in eleven schools in twelve years. At each school there were different ways of doing and saying, but no one gave reasons. This was just the way it is done. In fifth grade, I learned that not everyone could read. In sixth grade, I found the encyclopedia and learned that our alphabet was once pictures and that the letters did have many meanings and sounds. In seventh grade I learned that having a different way of speaking could make you a target of ridicule. Seventh grade was also where I found out about orthography. In high school, I found that a person could graduate without being able to competently read, write, and speak. At that time, I was not aware that I was considered competent. There were so many questions and so few answers that I was certain I had just failed to catch on. I carried books everywhere and devoured them. I designed my own script so that I could write legibly. I read anything and everything.
Later, when my child was still a toddler, we played word games, sang songs, made up poems and drew letters. He peddled his tricycle to the tune of conjugated verbs. When he started school, I made up cards with the word elements written on them. We read together. The newest edition of the “How and Why” series was always in the grocery cart. I started back to college several times to pursue this passion of mine. I still didn’t know what to call it so I became an ‘English Major’.
In my forties I became a literacy tutor, then tutor trainer. I began to realize just how many people do not have access to language. I applied to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, intending to pursue my studies there. I still did not have a focus. I did not have a name for this course of study and I did not have a grasp of the problem that I was grappling with. Why can’t people read and write. Why doesn’t everyone have the same access to language? I keep reading. There are 3x5s stuck in books and boxes all over the house. I couldn’t start at Cal Poly because of an intractable disability. I had been accepted and my credits were transferred. I moved here anyway figuring I would be closer when I did become able. Years pass and I keep studying but can’t figure any way to get around limitations.
Finally, there was a window, a way through. I decided to do independent study and write a paper. I have been just blocks from the university. I had been recording texts for the handicapped students. Being here and meeting many students, I found that it is also possible to graduate from college without being able to competently read, write, and speak English. I have speaking with students and, above all, listening to them. It isn’t just the students. I have noticed changes in the texts. With all the advances in printing and the increased access to all manner of information, one would expect greater professional literacy. Instead, we have a rambling Tower of Babel. We have more text and less content. More words and less significance.
My intention was to write a literacy program like the one that I used with my son and with the people that I tutored. The system focused more on the recurring sound patterns of one to five letters and and less on precise sounds of individual letters. These are what some people refer to as rhyming patterns. I concentrated more on functional elements of sound, those sound/sense patterns that are repeated in all text. As I read more and more, I found factors that I hadn’t considered. It had never occurred to me that anyone would try to obstruct literacy. And yet, it began to seem that way. I am not positing some great plot against anyone; but, I repeatedly found statements expressing the opinion that not everyone needs to know how to read and write. This is something that actually makes me almost angry. No, it has made me angry, many times.
The only reason that it no longer elicits anger is that I have finally found out that even those people who are teaching English and writing the books do not know the sense of the words. They know what they mean by the words and they know the sounds of their particular dialect. They may even be conversant with the most current usage of their particular dialect. Some are quite knowledgeable about the popular wisdom of their profession regarding the etymology of many words.
In the last few years, while working on this project, I have had encounters with an engineer, some professors, some lawyers, and some doctors over my use of words which they considered to be their professional language. One forensic physician wrote the opinion that it was “suspicious” that I had used medical terminology so well. He further remarked that I had made only one mistake. Silly me, I had thought that we were speaking English, the language of the people.
That settled the matter.
Before starting this project I had no idea what to call this passion. Now I do. It is ‘The Vulgate’. The vulgate is the language of the people. We the people are the vulgate. The words ‘vulgar’ and ‘vulgate’ come from the Latin vulgus or volgus, the common people. Vulgate and vulgar means ‘of or belonging to the great mass of people in general, common, popular. Vulgarity, however, refers to publicity, to making public. So the Bible is also referred to as ‘The Vulgate’, specifically the Latin edition of the bible prepared by St. Jerome in the 4th Century, the authorized version of the Roman Catholic Church[ref]Webster’s New Universal Unabridged 20th Century Edition p. 2051[/ref]. The dictionary indicates that the name Vulgate comes from the fact that the bible was published, was made public. I think it is high time that the peoples’ language is published.
The language of the people is spoken for centuries before it is analyzed and formalised by scholars and then put into a scholarly format. When we read about how old a word or a language is, we are in fact being told when the first written record appeared. Since we have had recorded sound for less than two centuries we have no way of knowing when we first started using certain words or sounds. We can guess and surmise how early language was spoken but we cannot know. The only reason that it matters, as far as I can see, is that having an idea how a word sounded helps us to identify the word.
What we can do is trace the symbols which mankind has used and compare the sound and the sense of the words when they are converted to alphabetic notation. Humans get quite specific with the images that we make. We also become quite expansive with our applications of those images. An example of this would be the symbol for lightning, a lightning bolt. From this we can get the many types of lightning, the sounds of the accompanying thunders, the actions of mankind that happen naturally, suddenly, and spontaneously in the way that lightning strikes. Much of our language is expressed in the images which we have observed in nature. Those images and observations have been passed down to us from our ancestors. There are lessons to be learned from them. There are new applications for the knowledge that they gained from their observations. There is new knowledge to be gained from looking at the old symbols with a fresh eye educated by centuries of learning and of mistakes. Ancient knowledge may be archaic; but, archaic does not mean useless. It is time to take a fresh look at the symbolism of our language as we have lost the connection between the symbols and the images which the symbols represent.
Humans are image makers. We observe and experience and then we make images which represent the things which we find compelling, the things which matter to us. This is not a unique observation. It has been made many times in many ways. Victor Hugo wrote, “…All letters began as signs, and all signs began as images.”[ref]“Writing, The Story of Alphabets and Scripts” p. 196 Jean, Georges quoting from “Travel Notebooks, 1839 ” Victor Hugo Victor Hugo goes on to relate what he sees in the alphabet. He mentions demotic and hieratic language; but he does not make references to runes in this excerpt. ( I want to be certain not to make misleading references.)[/ref] English the Vulgate is a live and vital language which still has a lot to teach us about who we are, where we came from, and all the amazing peoples that we have encountered on our journey. Our language, like our systems of governance, was constructed so that it could grow and develop to meet the new times, new experiences and new people.
The word ‘vulgar’ has come to have the connotation of loathsome, crude, insensitive, unpolished, crass, obtrusively democratic rather than elegantly republican, common. Until lately, this word ‘common’ had also come to denote something base and vulgar. Of late, the word ‘common’ has been redeemed in the form of the commons, a term referring to all things that belong to all the people: air, water, earth, life, liberty, food to eat, work to do, a space to walk in and live in, community, family These are all things that belong to the people yet are being wrested from us. I submit that language is also a part of that commons and it is also being taken from us. In the last century, our language has been dumbed down until many college students read at what used to be an elementary school level. We have almost complete freedom of speech; but, we now have precious little language with which to speak.
Language began with the common man. The English language was composed for the tribes of the British Isles so that these many tribes of peoples, speaking many different languages, could more easily communicate with one another. English has never been controlled by a ‘language college’ or ‘arbiter of good taste’. What determines whether a word becomes ‘English’ is whether or not we accept the word and use it. The best way to keep our language, and keep it ours, is to decode it, then publish it and give it back to the people to continue growing it. When I say that our language is ‘being taken from us’ and is ‘being wrested from us’, I am not assigning blame or even suggesting intent. There can be neither blame nor intent without knowledge, and we do not know the code to our language. I can find no indication that anyone has knowledge of the code to the English language. It may be languishing in some obscure abbey library, or in the basement of the Vatican, or in a musty stack at a university library, or even more likely, in some very old greathouse library.
This book is about English, the Vulgate, the peoples’ language. It makes no scholarly pretensions but strives to be clear, honest and forthright. To this purpose I’m including footnotes, sources, some personal opinions, a bibliography, parables, and an unapologetically common way of speaking. This posture is in response to a written opinion which I keep reflecting on. “…beginning in the 1970s, there has occurred a kind of middle-class revolt, not yet resolved, in which a great many people seem to believe that the English language is entering a period of decline… To me it is axiomatic that the language ‘far from bleeding to death from past crudities and past wounds…can be used [at the present time as in the past] with majesty and power, free of all fault, by our greatest writers’.”[ref]”The English Language” Burchfield, Robert p. 6[/ref]
The language has not declined; our use of it has declined. We have become too intimidated, too abashed, too unlettered to learn and speak our own language knowledgeably and confidently. I’m quite certain that “our greatest writers” will continue to flourish. My concern is for all of the rest of us who need language. My concern is also for the State of the Union that requires an educated populace. I am confident that once there is a code book to the sense of our language, some of us will set about making the needed adjustments. Some of us will stop reciting ‘speaking points’, sitcom dialogue, and slogans from ad agencies, politicians, and ‘pop’ psychologists. Some of us will stop interrupting an interesting conversation to correct someone’s grammar or pronunciation. More of us will listen closely to what our own mouths are saying. I think that some of us have come to feel bullied into filling up all the quiet space with sound; ‘white noise’, ‘elevator music’, ‘sound ambiance’, ‘breaking news’, ‘talk radio’, ‘friendly chatter’, tweeting, and texting. I have had college teachers who claimed to raise grades of people just for asking questions. Another said that he gives extra credit to anyone who brings in a joke. That is rewarding blathering. Thoughtful Silence is not sin, neither mortal nor venial.
While many of the scholars whose opinions I have been reading are quite confident that King Ælfred did not intend that all people be educated, I disagree. I doubt that he would have pressured his people. I am certain that he would have encouraged them and tempted them. Why else would the first book translated have been the peoples’ prayerbook. I have been doing some in depth reading about the founding of the English language. While there is a phonetic code involved, I am quite certain that the significant code is not phonetic.
If the significant code is not a phonetic code, then what code is significant?
The discrete sounds in the words of the language are not the major factors in language comprehension. In fact, they are not even particularly important. If the alphabetic sounds in spoken language are consistently substituted for other sounds, the sense of the words will still be understandable. We have a built in translator that tries to ‘make sense’ even of language that makes no sense. The sense of the words, and the ideas being expressed with these words, are the preeminent issues in language use and comprehension. The alphabetic sounds and the spellings of words have changed many times since the English language was composed in the Tenth Century. I went looking for information on the famous “Great Vowel Shift” of English. When it occurred, over how many centuries, and just what changed, is dependent upon which authority you read. I think ‘the great vowel shift‘ is an ongoing process.
The sense of our language depends in great part upon the ways that we shift our vowels around. More about that later
LAST WORKED ON 3-31-2011 4-19-2011
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- Judith has written (and re-written) the pages below, initially for a book and now for this website. These files are still under revision, and should not be treated as stable documents.