Never Trust a Vowel

Vowels are shifty things. I teach literature, and when people have trouble making out words in the text that they haven’t met before, I ask them to try and take them apart to see if they recognize the parts; then they can guess at the word’s meaning. I teach medieval lit, so sometimes students are looking at Middle English or another older form of English, but just as often, it’s a Modern English word that’s flummoxing them, and the rules don’t change.
My reasons for not trusting vowels are:1. Vowels can vary from language to language, so if we know the roots of words, we can see why the vowels are what they are. For instance, Latin “e” often corresponds to Greek “o” as in English “dentist” and “orthodontist.”

2. Vowels can vary to denote tense in English. Now if we invent a new word, we just slap an “-ed” on the end of it to make it past tense, but older forms of English had elaborate systems of vowel gradation, some of which we still have (“sing/sang,” “fly/flew,” etc.). So sometimes if a word has a funky vowel in it, you just aren’t familiar with its old past form.
3. Regional accents change the vowels mostly. Occasionally there will be a consonant difference, like the b/v variation in dialects of Spanish, but usually it’s vowels. The “You say potato; I say potato” song/joke/aphorism makes this pretty clear. It’s not potato/potaco (although I’d be willing to try a potaco). It’s all about the vowels.
So if you’re trying to deduce what a word means, there’s a process I advocate, and vowels figure absolutely last, the treacherous little buggers.
First, try and figure out the root word. Take off anything that looks suspiciously prefixey or suffixey, like “-ey” or “pre-.” Then look at the root in terms of the frame of consonants, not really looking at the vowels.  So if we’re trying to deduce, say, podiatrist, we’d first remove the “-ist“ which is a clearly a suffix. It indicates a person who does the thing at the beginning of the word (like artist or philanthropist). Next we cut off the “-iatr” from Greek iatros, meaning “doctor” (as in psychiatrist), and we are left with “pod.”
Pod. Pod. So how’s your Greek? English speakers are usually better guessing Latin than Greek because English borrowed so much from Latin directly, as well as from French, Italian, and Spanish. But Greek “pod” means ‘foot.’ In Latin it was “ped.” Never trust a vowel. English has more common words with ped-, like a bicycle pedal or a gas pedal, or different animals being bipedal or quadrupedal. But “pod,” not so much. Cephalopod. Arthropod. (These are literally head-footed things, like squids, and joint-footed things, like crabs or ladybugs. But we were talking about vowels.)
And now we’re done. But consider next time you have trouble understanding a person’s accent, just relaxing your head when it comes to hearing vowels. When you don’t recognize a word you read on the internet or in a newspaper, try it with different vowels, and see if you can figure it out. I think adopting a playful, puzzler’s attitude toward language is a recipe for easier understanding, less frustration, and maybe even compassion.
Living · Teaching

Ancora Imparo: I am still learning

I’m glad to say I’m still learning.
Over the first ten years of teaching, I really worked on developing my teaching persona.  Who I am in the classroom is a little different from who I am in my street clothes.
Also, I have developed (or appropriated) some tag lines or truisms that have come to characterize my approach to the world and to literature and language: It’s all connected; There’s treasure everywhere; Never trust a vowel.
When students realize that Big Bang Theory is making use of ancient type scenes, or when they realize they can figure out the meaning of an old, say Middle English, word because they know a modern Spanish cognate, I say “It’s all connected.”
When they think a text sounds ridiculous (the titles of The Mabinogion and the Nibelungenlied always get snickers), or that it’s too old and foreign to matter to them, but they find some gem that sparkles for them, and that leads them in to loving it, I remind them “There’s treasure everywhere.”
When they beat their heads against the wall (figuratively!) trying to figure out how to translate Chaucer or Beowulf, sometimes a well-timed “Never trust a vowel” leads to an epiphany.
This year I’ve discovered a new truth: Context is everything.
I’ve taught Ovid’s Metamorphoses for ten years, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for fifteen, and they still remain fresh and vivid to me. Classics can do that. But part of my enjoyment is shifting this year, as I look deeper in to the order of events and stories within the works.
I have always encouraged students to look for structure and order in the works we read, but somehow this year, the context of ideas like the tragic deaths of children in Ovid (Apollo loses his son Phaethon and Inachus the river god loses his daughter Io, and both fathers mourn deeply) seem to come to a head in later stories, or at least to lend gravitas to them. After seeing several parents pine for their lost children, the story of Demeter succeeding in regaining her daughter from the land of the dead, even for half the year, is a consolation to all the grieving parents thus far.
In the Canterbury Tales, too, I’ve often noted that the connections between the tales get more subtle but also more numerous as the Tales go on, but this year I was compelled to read “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” in the context of the earlier “Reeve’s Tale” (where there is a rape which is treated as a lark by its grim, bitter narrator, despite the obvious discomfort of the audience). The Wife’s tale, then responds to that whole scene—the Reeve’s introduction, his tale, and its reception—with a tale of rape that is not laughed off, but punished, the rapist threatened, put through an ordeal, and apparently rehabilitated. Yes, she’s a strong woman writing a tale of wish fulfillment for herself, but after she shows the Reeve what she thinks ought to happen to men who perpetrate or cosign such violence.
As a medievalist, part of my job is drawing attention to texts that came before the ones we read, helping my students to see the progression of ideas (or not) and the continuity of traditions. It makes us feel part of a historical continuum and lends a richness to contemporary and pop culture.
But this year, I’m devoting more attention to the connections within the text itself—adopting and exploring the idea that the text itself teaches us how to read it most fully. Context is everything.  We’ll see how much mileage I can get out of that.
*There’s Treasure Everywhere” comes from the delightful 1996 Calvin and Hobbes treasury by Bill Watterson. I use it for wildly different texts and scenarios, but it remains a pretty universal truth.
** Ancora imparo is Italian for “I am still learning,” and attributed to Michelangelo and therefore appearing on plaques and paperweights everywhere, as well as the top of this blog.
Reading · Teaching

Words and Pictures, or The Forests of Fiction

“Fantasy is a place where it rains.”  When Italo Calvino begins his lecture on Visibility in literature, he begins with an image from Dante’s Paradiso, of pictures raining in to his imagination directly from God.  I went to sleep after reading Umberto Eco’s first Norton lecture, the first of “Six Walks in the Fictional Woods,” and awoke this morning to that miracle of Southern California weather, The Occasional Drizzle, so I started thinking of rainy images and images raining down.  This is a good time to write.
I have read Calvino’s essay at least a dozen times.  (I know because I’ve taught it annually for over a decade).  My book bears the traces of all these readings—comments and some sketches in red, blue, green, black, and purple ink, and pencil.  He discusses “two types of imaginative process:  the one that starts with the word and arrives at the visual image, and the one that starts with the visual image and arrives at its verbal expression” (Six Memos for the Next Millenium 83).  My book bears this out, as I diagram what he’s argued and illustrate what he’s described. This has been enough, every year, to send my head in to a tailspin. Which comes first, the text or the image?  And how do we understand one without the other?
When I start small, I remember that when I teach Children’s Literature, I spend some time talking about concretization. I probably should in other classes too, but especially when I’m thinking of kids reading stories, I imagine them building elaborate images in their heads as they read.  This is why movies made from books are often unsatisfying to readers—they’ve already imagined, or concretized the pictures from the descriptions given in the book, and nine times out of ten, they imagine things quite differently from the film’s director, so they spend the movie fussing that “that’s not what the house looked like” or “she’s supposed to be taller/shorter/darker/lighter/happier/smarter/better.”
In the movie case, the text has given rise to images in the reader’s and director’s heads, and then to comment on the movie (or explain our mental images), we need to go back to words to describe it.
We move back and forth from text to image to text to image.  (Presumably the author started with an image he or she was trying to convey too, right?  We know Calvino did sometimes.  He claims some of his novellas, like The Non-existent Knight and The Cloven Viscount began as images in his head of an empty suit of armor trotting around in Charlemagne’s army and a soldier split in to his good and bad sides by a cannonball.)  So sometimes it goes from the author’s image to the text he writes to the reader’s image to her description or discussion. So how far does this go?  Can we even understand images without using words, or understand words without visualizing them?
Some subjects, certainly.  Some texts don’t create images, just abstractions.  But I will confine myself to thinking of fiction here, and there is almost always some visual element—characters in a setting carrying out certain actions—all of that can be rendered in images.  Maybe we always move from image to text, back and forth like a pinball.  Maybe that’s how we understand the world.  My inner English major wants to argue, to say we go from words to words all the time—that’s literary criticism—but as I think about this relationship, I can see myself imagining the text taking place and then trying to explain it.  We understand words in terms of images, and we understand images by translating them in words.
Calvino says we spend our lives moving back and forth between text and image, so the literature we read needs to be visual in important ways.  Eco describes fiction as a forest we wander through—a world we enter, wend our way through, and leave different.  Perhaps that’s because we’ve seen, experienced, and understood things in our mental cinema while we wound through the words.