(Editor’s Note: This is the Founders’ Day convocation address by George Hudson, professor of English, at Memorial Chapel on Aug. 28, 2011)
One of the first rules of public speaking is to know your audience.
That is very difficult in this case because one part of the audience already knows almost everything there is to know about everything, and the other realizes that it is just beginning its intellectual journey. That latter part is modest to the point of humility, always open-minded, always questioning, always aware that our knowledge grows and changes every day.
I’m speaking, of course, of my colleagues sitting here behind me – of their unending curiosity, their devotion to learning. They know, as I know, that we owe all that we are to women and men – our teachers — who have held the same conviction: that truth exists but that no one possesses it whole, and that therefore the truth is still to be sought, its scattered pieces reassembled. They do their work not in drudgery but out of love, and that frees them in mind and spirit. Get to know as many of them as you can, and you will find it so. But what can I say to those of you before me who, with the wisdom of youth, already know everything? Perhaps I can speak to a subject so very obvious that it has escaped your attention – that most remarkable phenomenon that separates us as a species from all the rest, that we possess language.
You are gathered in this place, filling the room high and low, to hear others speak. And those of us on this stage are here, not to bounce a ball or throw it through a hoop but simply to speak. We share the assumption that something meaningful is taking place even though no one is keeping score. And for you this ritual will be repeated in other rooms on this campus, over and over again, for the next four years. You will gather to hear someone speak. Then it will be your turn. You will be asked to speak, and others will listen, and your confidence about just how much you know will slowly begin to shrink. At the end of those four years, you will gather as a class once more – at least most of you will – and the commencement speaker will congratulate you and challenge you to use what you have learned. You will receive a piece of paper, rolled up in a tube, bearing words that say, according to the trustees and faculty of this university, you have become educated. And in times to come you will try to recall those inspiring words that flew through the air, and you will probably wish that you had listened more carefully. When I look back at my own college years, I wish that all the time. I think of my own great teachers and realize that it has taken me five decades to begin to understand what they were trying to say to me so long ago.
Language: it issues from our mouths, from a part of us that has over time become fully eroticized. Mouths with which we suck, and kiss, and whisper, and speak, and sing, and sometimes pray – usually when we cannot think of anything else to do. We suck at the breast of our mother in utter contentment; we kiss the lips of our beloved – and sometimes the little wisp of hair behind her ear. We ritualize our erotic behavior in magic words: “With this ring, I thee wed”, and then we go on to generate more human creatures who, in their turn, will suck and kiss and say their speeches and pass on. If you don’t think that language is erotic, read John Donne: He says to his mistress, “License my roving hands, and let them go/ before, behind, between, above, below.” How can anyone make a list of prepositions separated by commas so delightfully suggestive? We delight in anticipation. The waiter opens the wine and invites us to taste. We raise the glass and sniff and touch it to our lips and then we smile knowingly at our beloved and say: “Fruit aromas of cherry, blackberry and plum combine with complex notes of mint and cigar box. Rich, full-bodied mouth feel with firm tannins and an excellent finish.” Isn’t it remarkable how words can give grace to a glass of fermented grape juice?
If you don’t think language is important, take a vow here, tonight that you will never, under any circumstances utter the words, “I love you”. You can easily make yourselves into the most miserable graduating class in the history of Colgate.
We do not know the origin of language, though scholars have propounded many theories. The ancient myths all hold that language is of divine origin, and this is reflected in the words of John in the Bible: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And that Biblical God illumines our universe merely by speaking: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” Just recently researchers have shown that we do not learn language by endless repetition as we previously thought. We learn it in a series of epiphanies, and epiphany is also the path by which religious awareness comes to those to whom it comes.
Surely language deserves our deep respect and perhaps our reverence.
I witnessed such reverence a number of years ago when I was asked by the Smithsonian Institution to design a hiking program in the Swiss National Park. We wanted to observe the project there for the re-establishment of the great bearded vulture. Speaking of the significance of words: just because this giant bird’s vernacular name, lammergeier, suggests that it kills lambs, farmers had hunted it nearly to extinction. Actually, it’s a scavenger and is seen on the carcasses of lambs only because some other creature has already killed them or they have died of exposure. The Park lies in the area known as the Engadine, the valley of the Inn River. It is one of the most beautiful spots on Earth. The tormented Friedrich Nietzsche found peace there and wrote much of Thus Spoke Zarathustra in the village of Sils Maria. The English naturalist Thomas Huxley spent many summers in Maloja. The American writer and physician, Dr. Lewis Thomas, writing about the terror of nuclear war in his Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, says, “I cannot push away the thought of a cloud of radioactivity drifting along the Engadin, from the Moloja Pass to Ftan, killing off the part of the earth I love more than any other part.”
The Smithsonian decided to base its hiking program in the old village of Zuoz, just a couple of kilometers from the entrance to the national park. The officials of the town were very happy to have us. Most of the tourism in the area is based on winter and spring skiing, but our presence would bring the village prosperity for two weeks in the summer off-season for a number of years. Yet just when we had agreed upon our bargain, the village bells began to ring out a loud summons, and we found the whole population gathering in the public square to listen to the mayor, who was speaking in a dialect of Rhaeto-Romansch. Rhaeto-Romansch is the fourth national language of Switzerland. An ancient survival from a polyglot form of Late Latin, it has fewer than 200,000 speakers in Chantun Grishchuns, or Canton Grisons or the Graubunden in French or German. And these few speakers are divided among the dialects Puter, Vallader, Surmiran, Sursilvan, and Sutsilvan. As the mayor spoke in passionate tones, the Smithsonian delegation was backed up against the wall of the local butcher shop, looking down on the crowd from the back and above. “What’s he saying?” the head of the Smithsonian’s travel office asked me? What indeed? It sounded as if a Croatian were speaking bad Latin with an Italian accent. But somehow I got the gist of it, and then little by little, I got the point. “He is welcoming us to the village but he wants the people to understand the threat to their language. He doesn’t want to see signs on these ancient buildings in English. They already have enough signs in German and Italian. He doesn’t want to see English on the menus in the local restaurants. He doesn’t like hamburger. He doesn’t want the cuisine to change. He is reminding them that what they have is a unique gift, a language unlike any other, an ancient heritage. He doesn’t want that to be lost.” And it is special language, if you hike in the Alps, you will hear early in the morning “Gruss Gott” in Austria, “Gruss am Hohe” in Bavaria, “Gruetzi”, in Canton Bern, but in the Engadine good morning is “Allegra!” — joy!
And then, as the Smithsonian delegation stood watching, a remarkable thing happened. The villagers all took off their hats and they began to sing: “Charra lingua da la mamma, tu sonor rumantsch ladin, tu favel la dutscha lamma, o co t’am eu sainza fin.”
They were singing a hymn to their beautiful mother, their mountain world, their special language – “Dear mother, Romantsch Ladin, speaking your words, sweet, soft language, how I love you without end.”
But as I heard the villagers of Zuoz singing, I was sad. I could not help wishing that my own students loved the English language as much as these people loved theirs.
Now I know that not all of you are native speakers of English. Some of you are from Long Island. But English is, after all, the common language of the college. Let me speak about English first.
Language, Walt Whitman says, “is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground. Its final decisions are made by the masses, people nearest the concrete, having most to do with actual land and sea.” If we accept this as true, then it becomes clear that any language will always be in a state of flux. New words will come and go as whale ships come and go, or as the shape of a plow changes. H.L. Mencken tells us in The American Language that the British were quite disturbed when colonists in America began to add new words to the language – words such as canoe, wampum, wigwam, and moccasin. But all of these words are nouns, and a language can easily expand to contain an infinite number of nouns. As one scholar of language says, “nouns don’t matter”. We can always make room for a kayak or a hibachi in our linguistic garage. What does matter is the decay of the very structure of a language, the debasement of its logical principles.
Consider the simple preposition. Proper use of prepositions is largely idiomatic and intuitive, but there is also a certain logic. We came “into” the Chapel. We are “in” the Chapel. I am “on” the stage. I noticed the following cry of anguish in a comment on line: “Based off ! Where did this horrible expression come from? A good half of the undergraduate papers my wife was recently grading included either “based off” or “based off of”. Googling “based off”, produces over four million citations at last count.” I usually say to my students, “A building “based off” its foundation will not stand.” They still don’t switch to “based on”, which is by far more logical. What has happened? Perhaps it is that our lives are dominated by consumer electronics, and that every device that clutters our lives from our smart phone to our iPad has an on-off switch. Like our machines we have become “turned off” or “turned on.” Perhaps it is the slow, iniquitous spread of expressions containing “off” – it was a turn off, I was ticked off, it was a rip off, he sure blasted off – and if you keep going they become progressively vulgar — “get off” and worse. “Off” is a ubiquitous phoneme, but as a morpheme it is becoming empty. Much of our speech and writing is becoming empty. One of my colleagues recently sent me a completely empty thesis sentence from a term paper: “The novel, Othello, by Pelican Shakespeare, has many different meanings.” Do I really need to tell you that Othello is a play, not a novel, that Pelican is the name of a publisher, and that Shakespeare’s first name was William. Poor Will, turned into an awkward bird! “Has many different meanings” has no meaning at all. Empty.
Let me be upfront with you. I hope I’m not exceeding your attention span or placing an obstacle in your career path or pushing you outside your comfort zone. I know you are laid back about language that you have your own life style, that you expect me to be cutting edge and to push you to the next level, but I don’t want to exceed your learning curve. Just empty jargon. A gathering of clichés. Thoughtless, vacuous, empty language — signifying nothing.
Even our punctuation marks have lost meaning. The waiter comes with a giant peppermill. “Would you like some black pepper?” “Just a little.” Croink, croink, croink. “Enough!” My students come with an apostrophe mill. “Would you like some apostrophes?” Croink, croink, croink. And there they are on the page, scattered everywhere like flecks of peppercorn in a green salad. Not one of my students seems to know that these little marks actually convey meaning, or what that meaning might be. Move that one off the tomato. It doesn’t look good there.
The decay of language precedes the decay of culture. Our culture is not threatened from outside by contact with Native Americans or Eskimos or returning GIs with charcoal grills. It is threatened from within by mass communication, by the ceaseless yammering of media personalities, politicians, and bureaucrats, and even by political correctness. My students are so frightened of being politically incorrect that they avoid all of the pronouns that indicate gender: he, she, his, hers. We have all become “they” and our possessions are “theirs”. “Brother”, and “sister”, “father” and “mother” will surely be the next to go – all human relation, all kinship gone. We are saturated with talk and nearly inundated by a tsunami of bad English. Politicians and bureaucrats love to use nouns as verbs. We have a perfectly useful verb in “to refer”, and we have its attendant noun “reference”. We have all the suppleness we need. We can “refer” to something or we can “make a reference”. But don’t the politicians love to make the noun into a verb and say “to reference” as in “He referenced the Constitution.” I hear the founding fathers weeping. When I actually heard a certain president of the United States use reference as a verb I wanted to start a movement to impeach him immediately.
Every president ought to know that nouns become verbs by back formation, and analogical back formation simply blurs the clarity of the language. It is not simply our language that is becoming debased; I would argue that it is our human dignity. My students speak of “an amount of people”. That is frightening. We are persons. Each one matters. We are numbered, one by one. Perhaps the Nazis thought of “the amount of people” riding the dark trains toward Poland, but surely we do not. I hope in time to meet many of your number. You are not an amount of anything.
Let us not prove Oscar Wilde right. “America,” he said, “is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.”
I am not asking you to become a pompous prig, but you should be able to distinguish the vernacular from the cultivated form and move gracefully between the two. When I go home to the South, I speak the Southern dialect. Come by and let me tell you a joke about the University of Georgia mascot, UGA the bulldog, in the Alabama dialect some time. As John Addington Symonds puts it, “a person of taste and ability will modify his use of language to meet the special requirements of the task proposed. He will have learned by study to distinguish between different tones and values in the instrument of speech, and will have acquired by exercise the power of touching that might organ of expression to various issues.”
Do not let the electronic age shock your verbal awareness into a catatonic state. Pick up a book. Fall in love with an author. I recently re-read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick for the fifth time. It grows with every reading, rich with echoes of the King James Bible and the language of Shakespeare. Melville owned a seven-volume set of Shakespeare’s plays and he made 491 markings in them. (Great Code) Chapter 58 of Moby Dick always enchants me, with its painting of the sea and the land and its allusion to a lost paradise. First Melville gives us an oil painting in blue with scintillations of light:
Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.
Then Melville changes the composition to green:
Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!
In My Reading Life, the South Carolinian Pat Conroy describes his first encounter with the North Carolina writer, Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I can hear some of my friends in American literature groaning, but what is of interest here is Conroy’s description of the deep impact of Wolfe’s language on his youthful imagination:
I mark the reading of Look Homeward Angel as one of the pivotal events of my life. The book took full possession of me in a way no book has before or since. I read it from cover to cover three straight times, transfigured by the mesmerizing hold of the narrator’s voice as I took in and fed on the power of the long line. It was the first time I realized that breathing and the written word were intimately connected to each other. I stepped into the streams of Thomas Wolfe and could already hear the waterfalls forming in the cliffs that lay invisible beyond me. The beauty of the language, shaped in sentences as pretty as blue herons, brought me to my knees with pleasure. I did not know that words could pour through me like honey through a burst hive or that gardens seeded in dark secrecy could bloom along the borders of my half-ruined boyhood because a writer could touch me in all the broken places with his art.
Poor tormented Franz Kafka writes: “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skulls, then why do we read it? A book must be an ice axe to break the frozen sea inside us.”
Read the book instead of watching the movie, and when you do watch films avoid the mindless slapstick, the obvious pratfalls, the numbing computerized visual effects that tell us nothing of real, human life. Rent some classic films. If you like comedy, watch The Philadelphia Story. You will see what a difference true verbal wit makes.
Love language. Love your own language. Learn it well. But if you are thinking that I am a linguistic chauvinist and that I favor English over other languages, you misunderstand. I want you to have a passion for your first language, but I want you to love all human languages for themselves.
Each of us thinks his own native tongue superior. There is a story about an international group of IBM executives who went to a New York performance of Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly. The American commented, “Isn’t “butterfly” a lovely word? So delicate. A Frenchman responded, “No, no, it’s much prettier in French “papillons!” – it just flutters! “Chigaimasu, said the Japanese, “Cho-Cho-san” is even more lovely!” “Nein! said the German, Deutsch ist besser, Schmetterling!” Unfortunately the German butterfly sounds as if it has just hit the radiator of your car at high speed.
I count myself lucky to have studied German for my doctorate, it has served me well on many treks through the Alps and on many an evening with friends at the Augustiner beer garden in Munich, and I think that my undergraduate study of French left an indelible impression on me. C.S. Lewis once said that to live without reading Plato’s Symposium is to die without ever having seen the sea. I feel that way about Pascal. I would count myself impoverished had I never read his Pensées in the original French. I feel most fortunate that my great teacher at Duke, Weston LaBarre, told me: “Young man, your thinking will never be complete until you learn a non-Western language.” LaBarre himself had learned the language of the Aymara Indians of the Lake Titicaca region, just as his great teacher, Edward Sapir had learned the Wishram and Takelma languages of the Native Americans of Oregon and had worked to establish the lexicon for the nearly extinct Yana language of California. LaBarre wanted me to learn the Eastern Cherokee of the Great Smoky Mountains, but I took up the study of Japanese instead. I thought if I learned a little Japanese I might get to visit Japan once in my lifetime. I lost track of my trans-Pacific flights after number twenty-five. I would want to convince you of the delights of reading the haiku of Matsuo Basho and having those spare seventeen Japanese syllables explode with meaning in your imagination, but I suspect that you may want to hear what a Colgate alumnus said to me in Hong Kong after I gave a talk there. He said, “Send me some students who have both Japanese and Mandarin, and I can open any door for them.”
We run the risk of becoming a highly educated monolingual society. Make friends with the international students here at Colgate, and you will find that their outlook is different. One of my best students of recent years just went off to PhD program in cultural anthropology at the University of Michigan. He spoke Russian as his mother’s tongue. He learned Spanish in high school. When he spoke his newly learned Japanese on my study group, jaws dropped and groups of locals gathered. He went to Dijon with the French study group and carried on conversations about wine with his home stay father. That summer he studied German at Middlebury. When he left for Ann Arbor he was in good control of six languages. A Colgate student who comes from Shanghai tells me of a resurgence in the study of the Greek and Latin classics in China. There were many classicists before the Cultural Revolution, and now they are back. Can it be that the Chinese will surpass us in knowledge of the Western tradition as they have surpassed us economically? Will we owe them not only trillions of dollars, but also the understanding of our own heritage?
Don’t stop at the level of high school language. Continue your growth; learn to read the classics. Read the moderns. Take a new language. Learn to relish those areas of the globe where two languages come together — Alsace where you can mix French and German and discover that the Rue du Vins de Vosges and the Vogesen Weinstrasse are the same – and that in either language the gewürztraminer is delicious; the Alto Adige where you can speak both German and Italian and discover those wonderful signs in the mountain huts that say in both languages, “Here we do not speak of the politics of national boundaries, but of the freedom of the mountains” – where the three rock spires are either the Tres Cime di Lavaredo or the Drei Zinnen, depending on whether you are coming from the north or the south. Explore Hanoi, where you can still dine in French, or Miami’s Little Havana where you can express your feelings about the problems of the Middle East by devouring Moros y Christianos con lechon asado, or of course, Long Island.
Finally, don’t neglect the one universal language. In the 1930s when the curriculum committee of the University of North Carolina was debating whether there should be both a language requirement and a mathematics requirement, Archibald Henderson, the remarkable scholar who chaired the Math Department said, “Gentlemen, mathematics IS a language!” Galileo is often quoted as saying, “Nature’s great book is written in mathematical language.” David Peat, writing in Mathematics and the Language of Nature reminds us of Sir James Jeans, the British astronomer and physicist who declared, “God is a mathematician”. Jeans held that the universe arises out of pure thought that is couched in the language of abstract mathematics. The title of Stephen Hawking’s fattest book is not “God Created the World” but God Created the Integer. I urge you to study the language of mathematics for three reasons. The first is self-evident. As a culture we are becoming unaccustomed to thinking hard. We cling to our assumptions. We circulate urban legends as if they were great truths. We are increasingly spoon-fed our opinions by the media, and we are intellectually lazy. The rigor of mathematical thinking is an antidote for this malady. Second, just as mastery of your own language is fundamental to the study of the Humanities, and that of foreign language leads both to the Social Sciences and to interdisciplinary study, the study of mathematics is the gateway to the Natural Sciences. Finally, in the fall of 2014, the officers of the Colgate chapter of the nation’s oldest academic honorary society, Phi Beta Kappa, will sit down to look at transcripts for this class. They will see much to delight them, I’m sure, but one thing will cause them dismay. They will note that many members of this class who have stellar grade point averages and who would otherwise be qualified for election to the society, lack two things – foreign language study and the study of mathematics at the college level. That will deprive you of a distinction you might have earned and will deprive the society of your intellectual contribution for years to come. Please don’t let that happen.
In Leaves of Grass the American poet, Walt Whitman, has a “Song for the Occupations.” Not far from the end, he addresses the scholars:
Listen close my scholars dear,
Doctrines, politics, and civilization exurge from you.
Sculpture and mounuments and any thing inscribed anywhere are tallied in you.
The gist of histories and statistics as far back as the records reach is in you this hour, and myths and tales the same.
If you were not breathing and walking here, where would they all be?
The most renowned poems would be ashes; orations and plays would be vacuums.
In the end I turn to you, the Class of 2015. Listen close: civilization depends on you. If you were not breathing and sitting here in this small paradise, this insular Tahiti, where would it all be? The lovely poems all ashes, my oration spoken into a vacuum. Don’t let that happen. Fill your memory with great words, make your heart the chapel of learning, the citadel of culture, then find your own tongue and speak!
Good night, and God speed.