Speaking language change

Improvising an academic paper?

Vernacular Eloquence by Peter Elbow

I’m thinking about an idea that I heard Grammar Girl (Mignon Fogarty) talk about—“so-called attempts to legislate language change”—how and when uses of words vanish, how and why there are “made-up” words, etc. I also participated in a workshop with Peter Elbow on speaking onto the page. So, today, my question is this: how does one really change a language or become confident enough in his or her own language fluency to take real risks in the face of traditional usage? Elbow said something early in the plenary that really stuck with me since—“culturally, we tend to think of writing as harder than speaking.” In other words, the resistance to writing may people experience is actually a cultural construct that has the potential to be undone or overthrown.                                                           

I’m immediately reminded of Steve Benson’s work, particularly the improvisation/talk he gave at the Segue Reading Series on May 12, 2007, as part of a panel on Language Poetry and the Body that Tim Peterson and I hosted (see Issue 4 of EOAGH). Benson’s performance included the following notes on his process (while the process was occurring):

don’t know what I have to say, so I recorded some notes on a tape cassette,
which I’m playing in my pocket, and there are little wires that run up to my ears,
so that I can hear through the wires what I recorded on the cassette
and help me know what I might talk about or what words I might use…

I love how Benson invites the audience into his composing process, as well as how Benson consistently challenges the way speaking and writing are taught to us. When students are asked to give a talk or a presentation--they are nervous, they read off a paper, they fear the language they need to use, and they often don't let their bodies know what they know.

So, what do Benson’s process of composition, Elbow’s ideas of “speaking to write,” and Fogarty’s phrase “legislate language change” all have in common? I think that each gestures towards what Elbow calls “finding the words […] with conviction.”  When we teach prose writing, how often do our students really read out loud? How often do we meet the student who speaks brilliantly in class, but that rhetoric never makes it onto the page? Elbow writes, “all too often people write ineffectually because they don’t fully own or inhabit their words. This is a common problem since so often they write only because someone (like me) is making them write” (Vernacular Eloquence 237). Why not work improvisation, risk-taking, talking the paper, transcription of an orally composed work…into a freshman’s regular composition experience?  Might this be a new way to “legislate language change”?