This Or These: The Tyranny Of Words And The Agony Of Choice


by  jun asuncion


 To Bulan Observers

We always enjoy constructive discussion or criticism for it  leads us to improvement or stimulate our thinking- as opposed to discussion or criticism that is closed, no substance, undifferentiated, egoistic and even sadistic.

On Perfection and the striving for Excellence

I give credit to the arguments presented both by Mr. Geronilla and Mr. Bulan in conjunction with Mr. Geronilla’s posted article  Have A Way With Words  in as much as we are operating within the context of constructive discussion.

Language is a tool to convey our thoughts and feelings, the very substance of communication. If you can get this substance across with simple English, then why not? This is what Mr. Bulan had in mind, a more practical application of the tool.

But language as a tool becomes an art when one strives to use it to show the beauty of its form; hence, the striving for excellence  according to Mr. Oliver Geronilla. This entails sticking to the formal rules. And so, if you can get your substance across in an artistic way, why not?

The next thing  is that this tool can become not only as an art but a profession. And here is the crux of the matter, of this discussion.

What’s the signficant difference when a pistol is in the hands of a trained law-enforcer- as in the hands of a criminal? The pistol is in the hands of  someone restricted by laws and by profession with respect to his public behaviour and right usage of the pistol (or any other weapon) at any given situation.

This is Oliver’s situation; he carries this responsibility in any given (written) situation  for that is his profession and this explains his being particular in expressing himself in perfect English. Why not express (write) the professional way?

But, if I may add something, it’s not totally fitting when he says that he is not striving for perfection but for excellence, for it is by trying to be excellent that we are actually striving for perfection, and also because these two words are just the two sides of the same coin; perfection is that ideal form (the highest state or goal) and excellence is the striving (action) for this ideal form.

But perfection is not equal to impossibility- at least when talking about the language. If you abide by the agreed or standard rules of  the American English grammar for instance, you can surely construct a perfect sentence and then a perfect paragraph. Isn’t it so?

Hence, to  recognize the error and to correct it is just a proof of our striving for perfection.

Nobody is perfect?

This is a cliche’ and normally by this we mean or understand that  everybody makes mistakes or has some flaws in character, judgement or in appearance.

But who’s definition of Perfection is being used in this statement?

 We will not go deeper into it it but at least let us mention Aristotle’s definition of perfection (In his book of Metaphysics) which is,  that 1. which is complete — which contains all the requisite parts; 2. which is so good that nothing of the kind could be better; 3. which has attained its purpose.

Therefore, if I would look at any normal  human being or an apple tree with Aristotle’s definition of perfection, I would say that human being or apple tree is perfect.

If human being could be perfect, why not a sentence or a paragraph?

But, roughly speaking, if you prefer Mr. Bulan’s view of accepting imperfections as along as the argument has a substance, it is also alright for this view has also its philosophical tradition, namely that of another Greek, Empedocles, who maintained that the world is imperfect and  that imperfection possesses that pull to completeness and ultimately to perfection as it develops with time, a concept adopted by the Italian esthetics in the baroque period by insisting that perfection is completed in the mind and imagination of the one viewing an art work.

Viewing an art work?  How about in reading a comment or article here in BO with such minor lapses in grammar or spelling? Can we really apply here Mr. Empedocles’ view on perfection?

Of Bulan pupils perfecting in their minds the imperfect  grammar or spelling they are noticing here in Bulan Observer?

Well, there is a hope. Because if they “notice” such errors, this means they have learned their lessons well at school.

Hence, it is imperative for the language instructors in our schools in Bulan to master the language they are teaching.

The other side of the coin:

A Necessity

“Necessity is blind until it becomes conscious. Freedom is the consciousness of necessity.” Karl Marx

 Mr. Geronilla is right to say that edition is needed for any printed message. For me alone, an editor would have a very hard job editing “my” English, a language which-before I even  had the chance to master it, has been buried deep in time, eaten up by the worms of oblivion when I went back to it  for a purpose. I wasn’t sure anymore if I could ever use it to even  form some basic phrases. I tried because there was this necessity.

Now, had I let myself be intimidated by English, I wouldn’t have met some good friends from Bulan. Sometimes you just need to do it, don’t wait for perfection for it will never come- at least in my case! That you just go for it. This is the lesson I learned in jazz music. Afraid to play an improvised solo in front of an audience? Forget it, just play! My guitar teacher was right. Perfection is a goal in every artist, even for the ones whom we think are already at the crest of the wave. The way to it is only through practice and deep reflection- this is the only way, again the way to something we cannot after all reach- at least subjectively. For perfection is not only the technical side of the craft, but it involves the question of the longing of our soul for something even better, something new- the will 0′ the wisp.

Afraid to make mistakes? Well, who’s not? Again, it takes courage and the will to overcome that which we set as our own limits. Courage can indeed open up new horizons, new possibilities for positive changes. At least you have tried- even you have failed, but definitely you also have learned something during the entire process.

Kein Master ist vom Himmel gefallen as they used to say it in German- or No one is born a master. No one, yes but it seems that for some it doesn’t take long to be one. No matter in which group you may belong, there is no reason not to try to master any craft available here on earth and to try other crafts as well. In this way you don’t waste your precious time.

My back  up against the wall

I’ve been writing English for two years now and I’m still glued in the most basic level. There were moments though when I was  almost eaten up by my doubts that I almost removed Bulan Observer from the net. But the strong pull to send message to Bulaneños took the upper hand and so BO exists until now.

Now we have grown a little bit, we Bulan netizens. I’m glad about this development.

BO was conceived not as an On-Line Newspaper for flawless plain reporting or write-ups but as a platform where Bulaneños could loosely meet and express their views. That’s the reason why I was not particular about editing comments or contributions. One thing more, it needs a lot of time even- as I’ve mentioned- for my own posted articles alone. It is right that lapses in grammar in written form are not permissible to protect the young mind from being corrupted at least in this subject. I cannot argue against it.

LIFE itself is a flux

But, in essence, all our mistakes here are not intentional, and so,- placed against a greater context,- forgivable. That greater context is LIFE itself. Life allows growth, trials and experimentations; it allows spontaneity of activity, of emotions, fantasy and thinking. In short it is free. And for those who try, they make mistakes. For those who do not try, don’t make a lot of mistakes, just a bigger one.

In BO everybody is welcome to participate in this freedom. We will keep this blog form still for a while since it reflects our philosophy of life as a flux, a continues flowing event. A new message covers the last one; what is gone, is gone; the moment is the most important for here is the chance to be free, to be better than the past.

Like The back Of Our hands

Going back to language, there is no doubt as to the beauty and advantages of having mastered it, so in effect there’s nothing else to write about it. How about just being at the basic level, is there also beauty and advantages left to it?

I think there is: One is forced to be simple and make the most out of one’s limitations. Isn’t it great also? This is very much in line with our goals for our town: To be a different town from the rest aside from its given limitations.

With time, I have observed though that my limitation is becoming my strength for I can – with my simple style- give form to my simple way of thinking. Why make it complicated? My way of thinking has always been between intuitive and analytical, my writing expositional. The focus is primarily on insights and logical argumentation. For this purpose, it suffices an English level for everyone, with the set of vocabulary that we know like the back of our hands. Indeed, I discovered- without suggesting anything in my favor- that many great writers/thinkers whose impact were far-reaching and have changed history (Marx, Einstein…) were so simple in their writing style, without idioms overdrive or distortions, or as we say, without being  flowery. I’ve read their works in German.

Language and Thinking

The survival value or goal of communication through language is for two or more persons to make their personal needs or perception be known to others or for them to have common understanding of whatever issue that concerns them.

Hence, verbal and non-verbal forms of communication are of central importance and are present in all human societies and in lower animal forms as well. Language use is the expression of thoughts in man and in lower animals as well. But since man’s thinking is motivated by variety of needs and largely determined by his particular cultural setting, language has grown to be a very complex and specialized phenomenon.

With the increasing speed and specialization in communication technology, the global proliferation of subcultures on internet platforms, miscommunication seems to be increasing also as new words are coined all the time. How would you explain to your grandfather (or even to your wife!) words like Software Engineering, Blogging, Netizens, Netbook? Or Cloud Computing, Buzz Compliant, Green Washing? Many of us “younger” ones do not even know instantly the meaning of these words.

The tyranny of words

But even before the global invasion of these hi-tech neologisms, we even have to continue wrestling with the many idiomatic expressions that come across our reading or listening dasein. If you have to do with westerners you will notice that they just “open fire ” at you with their mother tongue(s) loaded with never-heard idiomatic expressions, words half-eaten but with the velocity of a bmw sports car- without the slightest respect to your language of origin. This is a sign of their assumed superiority or dominance, the expectation being that you should adjust to him- not he to you- if you want to understand him. Very much the same situation during our colonial times when they came and opened fire at us; thereafter, they decreed that we  learn their languages, on the condition that we keep our mouth shut.

The Agony Of Choice

Whether This or These, our tongue has been a split and twisted since the invasion of the aggressive and dominating Europeans and north Americans, forcing the local inhabitants to adopt their languages and relegate their own behind for they were inferior. The reason why most of us write in English and not in Tagalog for we are “educated,”- educated the western way, not the Filipino way, hence, we are not- as a rule- masters of our own mother languages. For this reason, we suffer this agony of choice, a suffering symptomatic of the lack of cohesive cultural identity.

 Too many choices split not only the tongue but also the mind,  hinder the mastery of anything we can call “perfectly” our own. I have always dreamed of writing in a mother language, of how it would feel to observe foreigners writing in Tagalog, have often envied a good German friend of mine with whom I write some articles in German, his own mother language. Speaking about language,  Germany is a country without too many choices and therefore had produced people like Heine, Goethe, Nietzsche, Kant, Marx, Böll, Grass and all other philosophers and poets that we know. All of them wrote their masterpieces in German, their everyday language!

On Idioms: a cultural invasion

Idioms are great to spice up the language and I wish I possessed this knowledge. Idioms for idiot? Why not. I’ve read that both idiom and idiot came from Greek root “idios” which means “of one’s own” or “private”, that at that time idiot meant someone not interested in public affairs- a key duty in ancient Athens. Huh, If I don’t know these idioms, I should at least be interested in Bulan public affairs!

Roughly speaking, I have a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards idiomatic expressions-  or the overly use of them: On the one side, idioms seem to facilitate communication, on the other, they seem to obscure communication as they inject- mentally or even just visually- unwanted associations. But evidently idioms of a foreign language appear illogical to non-native speakers.

Idioms are “figures of speech” whose meaning is derived not from the meaning of collocated words literally but from a group’s consensus or experience of how a phrase should mean whose meaning naturally evolves with time. But basically, idiom is a colloquial language (partly a slang) , hence, is understood only within a particular cultural context.

 And there are many of these cultural contexts! But what’s the connection, you may ask. It is because we are- as average language users (as opposed to language super-users, like Mr. Geronilla), are frequently encountering idioms in the English language that are in themselves not originating from the English or American cultures but from other non-English speaking cultures as well. These foreign idioms are translated in English naturally. Take for instance this expression Not hanging noodles on your ears. Originally, this is a Russian expression which means in American idiom Not pulling  someone’s leg – or not  kidding  or fooling someone. It appears that to know all these idioms, it is like seizing the moon by the teeth (has nothing to do with capturing Bulan by the teeth), this time a French expression for attempting the impossible. And what has death to do with Kicking the bucket? And how about these:

To reheat cabbage: to rekindle an old flame (Italian).

When the crayfish sings on the mountain: never (Russian).

Cleaner than a frog’s armpit: to be poor, broke (Spanish).

To think one is the last suck of the mango: to be conceited (South American Spanish).

Onions should grow in your navel: a mild insult (Yiddish).

Brew tea from dirt under another’s fingernails: to learn a bitter lesson (Japanese).

Belch smoke from the seven orifices of the head: to be furious (Chinese).

Don’t be intimidated by just these few examples for there are tens of thousands of them.

It is interesting to note that many academic elite, scholars take pride in using idiomatic expressions to delineate their higher status from others, mostly from the less educated social strata or subgroups, when in fact most idiomatic expressions originated from these subgroups, from the street people, from the ghettos, from the urban working-class, rural folks, from the farmers, fishers…

The How’s and Why’s Of Language

Idioms- along with phonetics and phonology (the study of speech sounds), morphology (word structures), syntax (word combinations, sentences), semantics (actual  meaning of words and sentences), pragmatics (role of context)- are subjects of study  belonging  to the science of linguistics, or psycholinguistics. Here, you go deeper than just learning the rules, spellings, idioms, vocabularies and writing style,  a field which is very interesting  for it takes into account the  psychological and neurobiological factors that enable humans to acquire, use, comprehend and produce language.

A great authority on this subject is  the psycholiguinguist ( and a politica observer)  Noam Chomsky, whose concept of generative grammar- his term for syntax- is based on the concept of Universal Grammar, an innate apparatus in every human being and is simply evident in the tremendous speeed the children absorb the language(s) around them, able to form complex sentences right after they have learned the most basic features. This connects us to depth psychology, to Carl Gustav Jung’s concept of the archetype (such as the mother, hero, animus, anima, etc.) which is all about the innate psychological dispositions- or prototypes of human experience as contained in the collective unconscious-  in man. But this will bring us too far and too technical so we’d rather stop at this point.

But why do human beings communicate with such distorting and seemingly illogical combination of words as in idiomatic expressions? Indeed, there seems to be a lot of psychology and a lot of Freudian components in each language. Why for instance say Wait till the fat lady sings when one can simply say wait till the final moment? I wouldn’t use it when a lady twice my weight is sitting beside me.

The German language is also overflowing with such expressions and they even take  more grotesque forms in some cases. Expression like In der Not frisst der Teufel Fliegen (literally translated, in dire straits the devil eats flies) which is roughly equivalent to Beggars can’t be choosers. But why the words devil (Teufel) and flies (Fliegen)?  In any case, this whole affair with the idioms shows us that language communication does not allow only perfectly constructed sentences but also combination of seemingly unrelated words  or  “imperfect” sentences. And if  you would do a study on the text messages of our young Bulaneños today, then I wish you by now good luck.