Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Running in reverse

Recently I've had a chance to feed my undying love of linguistics. I've been reading up on the history of English and its antecedents (like Angl0-Saxon) and victims in the clash of tongues that's taken place on the British Isles since the early common era (like Cornish and Manx). The text I'm currently reading is Dick Leith's A social history of English (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), an interesting book offering a glimpse of English's development as a social, as well as a purely linguistic, phenomenon.

More interesting than Leith's treatment of English per se are some of the observations he makes about the codification of language, and the role of "authority" in the preservation and propagation of language across time and space. A central thesis of his book is that all too often we forget that language is very much dynamic: it is ever in flux, constantly changing...and that in the end that change is not driven by grammarians or the intellectual or economic elite so much as it is by the ways in which every member of society chooses to use the language.

These are points that even the most perspicacious language-lovers among us tend to overlook. The reminders Leith offers have made me think of new (to me, at least) and "subversive" paradigms for poetry (a post on that soon, perhaps)...but they've also recalled for me the central role every member of a learning community plays in that community's advancement of knowledge, while issuing a reminder as to just how dangerous it can be to trust blindly in the authority of a textbook.

The following passage from Leith (p. 68) struck me (cf. the comments some of my precalculus students made on their last exam):

Unfortunately, many people tend to treat dictionaries with reverence: rather than being seen as a record of usage, the are often regarded as the arbiter of it, a source of enlightenment for the ignorant non-specialist. In fact, the traditional arrangement of words in dictionaries gives people a strange idea about language. The alphabetic arrangement disassociates a word from the company it keeps, presenting it as a unit isolated from context and words of similar meaning. More important, many dictionaries give the impression that words have only one meaning, to be found on the right-hand side of the page. Even the fullest dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which shows the whole range of meanings by citing examples of a word in use at different periods in its history, puts the meanings first, then lists the examples, thereby obscuring the process involved in deriving the meanings; for we learn the meanings of new words most efficiently by hearing them in a wide range of contexts....It is not surprising, therefore, that people often misunderstand them.

How often too we ask our math students to use their textbooks in the same way they'd use a dictionary, placing theorems and proofs before (or, more often than not, simply in lieu of) the intuition and arguments that led to those theorems and proofs in the first place? How do our textbooks obscure the many long hours of exploration and discovery that went into the derivation of the theorems that pepper the textbooks' pages? Without access to the discoverer's process of discovery, the reader is apt to feel as though a given fact or formula arises ex nihilo, and that they, the uninitiated, are not privy to its inner workings.

Food for thought. By me, it's better to let the students stumble around a bit, piecing things together for themselves as they author their own textbooks. That's just what I'll be doing when we talk about general rational functions in Precalc tomorrow...strap yourselves in!

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