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Black History Month, day 12

Argh, I am getting more behind this weekend. But I can easily post twice tonight, after a quiet day of house-tending.

My daughter, who is intrigued by languages in general, has wanted to learn American Sign Language for a long time. I taught her the alphabet bit by bit when she was nine and we were living in Oaxaca, Mexico–it became something we did on bus journeys–but she hasn’t had access to a class, until now. San Francisco Rec and Parks has an after-school class once a week, total immersion: no speaking. She comes back each week jazzed and remembering every sign they learned that afternoon. They have a day camp this summer, so we’re hoping she’ll get to do an entire week of ASL.

So I was very glad to come across some information about Black American Sign Language. There are many sign languages around the world, and on reflection it isn’t at all surprising that black and white deaf U.S. Americans would generate and learn different languages. Schools for the deaf were segregated just like schools for the hearing, and while the first one was founded in 1817, it did not admit black students for its first 125 years. Deaf people have invented their own languages in the absence of formal schooling; it may be (here I am speculating) that the black and white Deaf communities were as isolated from each other as the black and white hearing communities, leading to similar differences in language.

Sadly, as with white modes of English, white ASL is treated as normative and “mainstream”–note how its name isn’t actually white ASL, but simply ASL–while Black ASL is separate and commonly regarded as inferior. Users of American Sign Language struggled to have their language recognized as a language; do BASL users have a similar struggle within the Deaf world?

I don’t know, but I’m glad that my daughter can be aware of different ASL vernaculars from the beginning. When she knows better sign, she can watch videos such as this one by Dr. Joseph Hill, a linguist and native signer of BASL, to learn more about BASL and maybe even learn two varieties of American sign languages at the same time. The Black ASL Project at Gallaudet will also be a great resource. And she and other people interested in language, power, race relations and culture might want to read The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL, by Dr. Hill and three others.



My mind usually goes blank the moment Joy asks, “So what do you want for Hanukah / Christmas / your birthday?” Then reminders keep popping up when all the present-shopping has been done. Just now, an article someone posted on Facebook reminded me that I have been wanting a book about how to diagram sentences. This way of teaching grammar is recalled by a few people fondly, and by most as an archaic torture device, like an oubliette, but for me it is only an artifact of times long past. It didn’t even appear in unused chapters of our grammar books, as far as I can recall; I encountered it in whichever of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books she passes her teacher’s exam (Little Town on the Prairie, I think).

Being visually inclined, I thought it looked kind of cool. I don’t know if I would really have learned grammar any more easily with such a concrete, spatial analogue of parts of speech, but I would almost certainly have found it interesting. My daughter (also a visual thinker) agrees it would be fun to see how it’s done.

So I told Joy just now that I want a book on how to diagram sentences. She advised me to go look for one myself, as she wouldn’t know where to start. So I hied over to AbeBooks, used books being preferable to new in most cases, and the very first item that popped up in my search was by a woman I know. Well, I knew her when I was a little girl; she and her then-husband were longtime friends of my parents. Both couples have since split up and I haven’t seen her in years, but she is a novelist, and her daughter, whose wedding I officiated, and I are friends on Facebook. (The daughter is not the person who posted the aforementioned article.) Her book is actually a history of sentence diagramming as well, and I think it sounds fascinating.

So, Kitty Burns Florey, I have ordered a copy of your book, Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences, and I can’t wait to read it.




(Catching up on blogging–this was written during our stay in Paris a week ago)

Joy and I both had a decent knowledge of French back in college, but that was a long time ago. Being in Paris is re-activating it, but the brain seems to have a “you are speaking a foreign language” switch which makes one respond to being addressed in a foreign language by spewing words in any language except one’s native tongue. These are not necessarily words of the local language, and for both of us, they tend to be Spanish.

It makes me aware of which Spanish words and phrases I know so solidly that I’m not translating from English but thinking in Spanish. They just pop out: I say “señor” instead of “monsieur,” “gracias” instead of “merci,” unless I stop and think and deliberately translate what I want to say into French. This makes common words the hardest: maintenant, aujourd’hui, aussi. Ironically, aussi (French for “also:) gave me trouble when I was learning Spanish. I distinctly recall having trouble remembering the word “tambien” (Spanish for “also”) because “aussi” kept coming to mind instead, which is when I started consciously suppressing my French.

My French pronunciation is coming back to me, but again, Spanish infects words that look similar. “Rue St. Martin” becomes “San Mar-TEEN.” The similarity of a word can make me doubt whether I’m remembering it right, but yes, semaine is the French word for “week,” not just my invention of something likely when my brain reaches for semana.

In general, knowing French grammar helped me to learn Spanish 20 years later. It meant, for example, that I already understood reflexive verbs. But the differences between the grammars are now coming back to get me. In Spanish one does not need a subject pronoun unless it’s necessary for clarity. If one wants to say, “I’m going to watch a movie,” “Voy a mirar una pelicula” will do just as well as “Yo voy a mirar una pelicula.” This has become so ingrained that when I brightly walked up to a store clerk to say, “We’re looking for soy milk”–“Cherchons du lait de soja”–and oh, how proud I was of remembering that it’s lait, not leche–the woman of course looked at me in confusion. “Of course” because, by leaving off the nous, “we,” I was saying to her, “Let’s look for soy milk!”

French. A lovely language. Not the same as Spanish. We’re going to be so happy to get to Barcelona. That is, if we don’t offend the Catalan speakers by speaking Spanish.

The Guerrilla Grammarian asked if she could guest blog today. I generally don’t have guest bloggers, but it’s hard to say no to your own alter ego, so, take it away, G.G.
– – –

Thanks, Amy. I thought I should speak up on this topic because, as a self-proclaimed guerrilla of grammar, I’m often assumed to be the kind who will swing into action, maybe even swing a battle-axe, in defense of the Oxford comma. You know: the comma just before the “and” in a sentence with a series of three or more items, such as this one:

“I like bananas, coconuts, and grapes.”

But in this I am profoundly misunderstood. I value grammar because it gives language clarity and expressiveness; rules added without good reason are just an irritation. Doubly so if they are accompanied by a load of self-righteousness, as, let’s face it, grammar rules tend to be.

I don’t actually have a strong preference between the Oxford comma and the whatever-the-opposite is (Cambridge absence-of-comma?). They convey different rhythms, and so sometimes I find myself using one, sometimes the other, depending on how long I want the reader to linger. However, I was taught the “Cambridge” and so it’s my default. Furthermore, I wish to defend it against the Oxfordites’ low-blow use of the straw-person argument against it.

The argument is made on the basis of clarity, and is inevitably accompanied by amusing examples, such as the probably-apocryphal dedication page

“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God”

and the classic

“We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.”

Oxfordites will argue that we need the comma after “Ayn Rand” so that the reader does not think she is the writer’s mother (shudder). Likewise, we need a comma after “JFK” so that it’s clear that he and Stalin are not the aforementioned strippers. (I still want to know what occasion could possibly have had that guest list.)

These examples do illustrate the need for an additional comma. The problem is that they do not illustrate the superiority of the Oxford comma in general. The rule I learned already clearly states that one omits a comma before the last item unless it is necessary for clarity. The people who wrote the “Ayn Rand” and “strippers” sentences, if they were real people, would have been using incorrect punctuation by either the Oxford or the “Cambridge” rule.

I repeat: these sentences are not examples of the “Cambridge” comma. They are examples of incorrect punctuation, full stop.

So this is a plea for fair debate. Straw people just fill the air with a lot of dusty chaff. None of us wishes to claim Ayn Rand and God as our parents, no matter which comma usage we prefer, and unless we are not proofreading carefully, none of us does.

Grammatically yours,
The Guerrilla Grammarian

About once a year I do a Question Box service, when in lieu of the sermon I answer as many questions as I can from among those people have written down earlier in the service. It being impossible to get to all of them in the space of 20 minutes, I promised this year to take them up gradually in such forums as newsletter columns and blogs. This one is in reference to the benediction our choir sings most weeks,

May the road rise to meet you

May the wind be always at your back

May the sun shine warm upon your face

May the rain fall soft upon your fields

And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his/her hand. (The choir alternates, one week singing “her,” the next singing “his.”)

The questioner asked: “Does God have a gender?” Here’s my response, which I also published in the forthcoming edition of our newsletter.

I love this question! In fact, I’ve given this a lot of thought for years. In a Feminist Theology class at Syracuse, we read pieces arguing that in imagining God as male, men—who had shaped most of Jewish and Christian tradition—were creating God in their own image and then worshiping themselves. In other words, committing idolatry.

I agreed with these theo/alogians (if God might be female, then the area of study might better be called thealogy) but thought they needed to go further. I didn’t believe in an anthropomorphic god at all (as you’ll hear in today’s sermon), and I wrote a paper called something like “Anthropomorphism and Idolatry” arguing that describing the divine exclusively in human images was as idolatrous as describing it exclusively in male images. After all, if God created everything, surely it would be a wild coincidence for us to be the one and only creature who resembles the Creator. It’s self-serving and arrogant to assume that’s true.

So, no, God does not have a gender. As feminist theology points out, does God have genitals? Chromosomes? A beard? Of course the answer must be no. It’s a metaphor, and when we start to take it literally, we end up worshiping maleness, and we’ve seen where that leads: misogyny.

And no, God is not a human being. As I pointed out in my long-ago essay, does God have blood? a brain? two arms, two legs? Of course the answer must be no. When we take this metaphor literally, we end up worshiping humanness, and that leads to our despising the rest of nature and destroying the environment.

This doesn’t mean that these images should be tossed aside. The fact is, we humans think in images and metaphors, especially when it comes to great abstractions such as love, peace, and God. Whatever the holy is—power, goodness, creativity—it is beyond simple understanding and beyond anything to which it might be likened. And yet, metaphors help us express what we mean. When people imagine the holy as something that creates life, they may imagine a sculptor working in clay (as in one of the Genesis stories, and many other religions’ creation stories) or a woman giving birth (as in Babylonian religion and others). Neither makes sense literally, but they’re good metaphors for the power of creation. When the choir sings, “May God hold you in the palm of her [or his] hand,” what they are saying doesn’t make sense literally, but it is a good metaphor for this wish: as you move through a life that is often hazardous, we hope that some of the great forces of the universe will carry you safely through.

Because I think metaphors are a necessary aspect of human thought (if I wasn’t convinced already, one of George Lakoff’s early books, Metaphors We Live By, with Mark Johnson,sealed it), I think the remedy to their limitations is not to shun them but to use a wide variety of them. This helps prevent us from taking any of them literally, or limiting our understanding to just a couple of characteristics of, in this case, God, or as I prefer to say, the holy. Maybe the holy is like water; this is a frequent image for the Tao, flexible and ever-changing and powerful. And/or, maybe it’s like a crucible, in which the unimportant aspects of our lives are burned away. And/or, maybe it’s like a healer, curing the illnesses of the soul, the body, even the planet. And/or, maybe it’s like a flower, growing where we tend it and needing our care to flourish. If we have enough of these different metaphors in the mix, then we can safely throw in some human ones too: male, female, and neither.

What metaphors express what you believe is holy?




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