Ye Olde Catchcough

“The general consensus is that between 50 and 90% of languages spoken today will probably have become extinct by the year 2100.”

This from Wikipedia, the know-it-all of my generation. Also this:  language refers to “the cognitive ability to learn and use systems of complex communication, or to describe the set of rules that makes up these systems, or the set of utterances that can be produced from those rules.”

I was specifically looking for the word “creative” in the encyclopedia entry because I have been thinking about how language, writing, and communication are creative endeavors. I’m not just thinking of stories and poems and works of literature, but the way we put words together to communicate basic, or complex, ideas. My nearly three-year-old daughter impresses me daily with her choice of words and turns of phrases.

I was recently sitting among middle school students watching Ron Frye of Milwaukee’s Optimist Theater  act like William Shakespeare. He was in full garb, explaining he had just traveled 400 years to talk with us. His hook, with the kids and with me, was good: He told us he had just heard some of our modern rap music and that he quite liked it, but didn’t fully understand the words. Instead he enjoyed the rhythm and cadence and got the gist of the thing. That, he suggested, is the best way to enjoy his (Shakespeare’s) plays.

Shakespeare has become synonymous with literature and the first line of the Wikipedia entry states that he is “widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language.” He was a playwright. Why not a playwrite? That would make more sense, but the rules have never made sense. (Tell that to the folks who were up late celebrating National Grammar Day  earlier this month).

This photo of a sign in both  Malayalam and English was taken by Samia Shalabi, who leads tours in South India. Visit http://www.karazidesign.blogspot.com/ to see more.

This photo of a sign in both Malayalam and English was taken by Samia Shalabi, who leads tours in South India. Visit http://www.karazidesign.blogspot.com/ to see more.

In his day, Mr. Shakespeare, AKA Ron Frye, explained that spelling was considered a creative act. Writers tried out different spellings of the same word within one piece of work, just to demonstrate how clever they were!

Blogging is a relatively new genre of writing and naturally some are more clever, others more rule-abiding. As a general rule, it’s more important to keep it pithy than to get the sentence structure right. Penelope Trunk, a blogger whom I read because she is interesting, says that the best way to judge writing today is if people want to read it. She suggests we forget the rules and aim instead to find an audience. That is, if we are hoping to communicate something. The post is titled “How to teach writing: Ignore Grammar.”

The Wisconsin Humanities Council, where I work, has just awarded Optimist Theater’s outreach program with a grant to continue the hard work of making Shakespeare fun, relevant, and inspiring. Their mission is based on the belief that “the theatrical arts broaden and enrich those parts of our minds and spirits that are most essentially human.” Ron Frye takes the challenge personally, making him a great blend of history-nut and modern man. He wears a sword in a scabbard, so he gets respect.

March fourth, you say? Language evolves. OMG, it does. Many of you have stopped reading by now because I’m getting long winded. If I still have your attention, will bring this back around to ponder the influence the internet is having on language. While there are 6,000-7,000 languages in the world, over half of the internet is in English. It was mostly typed with a keyboard based on the English language. The foreign language internet  is rapidly expanding, with English being used by (surprisingly? only?) 27% of users worldwide (Again, thanks Wikipedia). I translate that to mean that more and more people will be using English as their second language and I think that only can add to the creativity of language use. In my experience, people who are communicating in a language that is not their mother-tongue are the most inventive! Aside from toddlers.

I’ll end with a new word for handkerchief, coined by my daughter: The catchcough. Let’s see if it goes viral.

By Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs
Wisconsin Humanities Council 

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