by Lee | Filed under Non-Fiction
Here’s a fairly long essay called On Tuition Row that I wrote about language extinction, also available in the PEN Canada anthology Finding the Words, edited by Jared Bland.
ON TUITION ROW
If you want to learn about nature, to appreciate nature, it is necessary to understand the language that she speaks in.
—Richard Feynman, physicist, lecturer, adventurer (1918-1988)
In general, every country has the language it deserves.
—Jorge Luis Borges
For a couple desperate years in the middle of the decade I worked for a company that sold post-secondary tuition to waylaid young adults with low averages and show business dreams. There were about two dozen staff in our department, split in two offices. I was included in the half seated in a poorly ventilated space the shape of the passenger cabin in a prop plane. We all took turns playing passenger, flight attendants, or pilot. On one side of the aisle the office windows looked down at computer classrooms on the first floor, and over what would be the other wing, the windows looked down at a room set up with a cinematic green-screen for making special effects.
Uniquely positioned between these rooms, and not far from a latex lab and a fry kitchen, meant that some days a dark burning smell would permeate our recycled oxygen. A sulfuric fume or grease explosion or a nauseating solvent leak would pour from the overhead vents and stall work altogether. I was not the only person in our department who found the stifling atmosphere hard on the throat. Our manager would call expecting deliverables. To clear our throats, we each. had our ways. One resorted to talking louder — as if a lion’s roar ever stalled a managerial gas! Others crouched low over their desks below the level of the toxic air, gripping their plastic banana-protecting holsters at their sides in a rainbow of muskets, and spoke only in exfoliating doomsday voices about the workload: this MOU and that PPT — it was never-ending! All the while nibbling ruefully from their unbruised fruit or from a Ziploc bag of home-brought carrotsticks in water – don’t get these crouchers going! They slowly pumiced you down to a depressing nut with their trench-jitters.
“But that’s why we’re here,” I’d always say, “to work. And then to work more.”
“One thing at a time then,” they jittered. “Give me one thing. Not five things. Ten things at a time? I need more IT.”
Actually the word colleagues used was not “thing,” it would most likely be “deliverables.” As a synonym for whatever thing we were working on, deliverables has whipcrack. It’s active, it’s got looming deadlines. As part of my job in this office I was daily faced with all sorts of words like deliverables. I was hearing words used for the first time outside business books and sitcom television. So as not to expose myself for harbouring what I sensed were insubordinate feelings I bit my true tongue and made somewhat of a professional attempt to fake a palate for the office vocab. In this department we were all hired to help sell tuition to prospective customers because in our other lives we were artists and writers and actors and webmasters and had some idea how people, regular people, communicate. Nevertheless in that three-month probationary period after being hired it was first priority to understand the dialect spoken within the company.
Three days a week I bicycled to the office and worked with a team of other desperate artists, happy to be paid to find ways to convince the youth of today to buy our tuition. We defined our brand, were in the middle of updating our website, and our tagline was “something-something dream.” We sold a fair deal of tuition every year. It was a solid product with lots of options, and it was expensive. Most of my job was spent updating the company’s website with new anecdotes about our customers. It was a fun, slow, caterpillaring process.
Over time the company spread out, leasing floors here and there in the neighbourhood to make room for more customers. At the time I worked there we had three buildings all to ourselves, and floors of towers and low-rise industrial buildings elsewhere in town.
Other companies who leased nearby sold rival tuition. It was kind of the town’s educational ghetto. A reputable trade school had a whole city block south of us for culinary, legal aid, nursing, and electronics tuitions. A major humanities university was located on the bottom floors of a mushroom-shaped tower to our north. There were two or three single-room schools down towards the pier that specialized in glamour makeup and hair styling.
And language was everywhere: A dozen or more separate companies sold ESL, a popular tuition package that appeals to young, unfussy foreigners who want freedom from home and to learn our conversational English at their parents’ expense. Unlike how we toiled to highlight our company’s uniqueness, the ESL companies preferred to avoid identification and focus on service-oriented advertising. ESL signage showed up in our neighbourhood like illegible multi-lingual Scrabbleboards tacked on to the windows of corner storefronts or third storey offices – few had actual classrooms, their employees met with customers in coffee shops to talk grammar. Little one-room ESL companies would rather make their interchangeable private services seem like part of one big sprawling franchise entity. I thought their corporate signage was graphically incorrect by any other design standard besides anonymity — making it hard to tell one company from the next protected them all. One cold rainy Thursday near the end of a month in the middle of winter I remember walking past some stunned-looking ESL customers who showed up for a verb class that morning to find their school gone. Overnight the company imploded in a single bankroll.
There were other companies which sold tuition packages that did not compete with our product at all. Anyone who wanted to pay for lessons in traditional English combat could visit the second floor of the building next to ours with its full kit of Medieval weapons, broadsword, claymore, round shield, plate armour, halberd, flanged mace, ear dagger, ready to instruct you in this martial vocabulary for a fee. A peaceful alternative across the street sold fitness and aerobics outfits and one-hour hot yoga sessions.
I observed the many kinds of educations one could receive on these streets. The main offices of the company I worked for was between these schools, skid row, and a centre for Scientology. Our customers might be outside smoking between classes on aspect ratio and artificial light and get mixed up with a dangerous fanatic from the Dianetics office or a spaced-out zealot on a fresh fix. After class our customers might wait for the next bus with a role-playing knight, and fall in love with an ESL gone astray.
Before I locked my bike in the morning someone in front of Scientology would always ask, “Would you like to take a personality test?”
We all offered tests. Working on tuition row I heard people from across the world struggle to learn the difficulties of English or discover another talent – and knowing the language is essential to any job. I was right there with the rest as I listened and tried to remember all the nuances of the language I was surrounded by at the office, what I will call Corporate English.
CE, or what the Rutgers linguist William Lutz calls Doublespeak, conflating two words from Orwell’s 1984 (newspeak and doubletalk), is certainly the dominant slang among the English speaking world’s offices, and as a result, Corporate English has an influence on the way the rest of us speak, too, even if we lack an office or find our desks cut off from the conversation. As Lutz observes in his comparison of Orwell’s novel and his America, Doublespeak is an anti-mode of speaking that swaps the rococo of the castle artistocracy with a coarse jargon to suit the age of nano-capitalists. “Doublespeak is language that only pretends to say something; it’s language that hides, evades or misleads,” Lutz writes. But language can’t hide from meaning as Lutz suggests this slang does. For slang to inhere the words must be wonderfully vivid, imposing and direct, and impressed on your cultural perspective from high authority. Corporate English has intense clout in business. I found Corporate English unfamiliar and intimidating, and alienated from the source of its power, every time I heard CE used in the office I could also hear Lutz’s reproach echoing in my head, distracting me from my work. I tried to decipher the language to stay employed. I think calling it Doublespeak miscasts the problem. Blaming the feudal system of business on the incoherence of the language and not the perspective of the speakers is like bailing out the banks, so to speak. “Language that only pretends to say something,” is too quick a dismissal, it’s been applied to every foreign tongue in the book and it’s never true. Rap slang is dissed likewise, and the same reaction was had by the foreigners who encountered the language of the Algonquin Abenaki four hundred years ago, or Australia’s reservation Kriol in the 1960s.
Even the ever-spacious and sensitive thinker Henry David Thoreau, when describing his first encounter with the First Nation language of Abenakis in The Maine Woods, wrote of how it was “a purely wild and primitive American sound, as much as the barking of a chickaree, and I could not understand a syllable of it.” But where the linguist Lutz sees only nightmare in Corporate English, the unfettered Thoreau also wrote of how “these Abenakis gossiped, laughed, and jested, in the language in which Eliot’s Indian Bible is written, the language which has been spoken in New England who shall say how long? These were the sounds that issued from the wigwams of this country before Columbus was born: they have not yet died away; and, with remarkably few exceptions, the language of their forefathers is still copious enough for them.” Is there some such joy and pleasure in CE?
I knew how copious a language Corporate English was but until my first chance to attend a staff meeting about tuition I had never heard it so assiduously employed. Before I was hired by the company my notion of CE came from its reputation, its place in American business, and all the staff spinoffs, blogs featuring fake CE words like drink the Kool-Aid and blamestorm. But I never knew which words were seriously used in an office and which ones were disgruntled employee gags. Did staff really say you rise the corporate ladder through assmosis? Did any boss really expect, even metaphorically, to boil the ocean? Maybe staff really did have a spoken variation on the boss’s dialects, maybe it was only spoken out of earshot of employers, or posted on blogspot?
In my experience, it was the tuition company’s pyramidical hierarchy itself that regulated the flow of speech. My boss was an MBA-by-correspondence and routinely dropped his knowledge in conversation. I learned to differentiate between what was business certified and what was mere regional coinage by listening to him and my various superiors. Action item. Deliverables. M.O.U. Team. The slang was used with a fuzzy grey partitioned sincerity that was not to be fucked with. Along with the rules of the highway system, the strict doctrines of the military-industrial complex is another perennial role model and loandword cache for Corporate English—the three languages are all tribally connected. Even tuition companies like ours operated on a loose highway-military model. Even our online project organizer was called Basecamp.
One night after the boss’s sudden layoff of a talented employee rattled my morale, I lay in bed wondering, Should I become more than a desktop soldier and learn to speak fluent Corporate English? Implement a few new words and…downsize…a few others? Just use cliché at the office, that’s all. I knew that to accept the merits of each new word was part of my job, it was required of me to swallow CE wholeheartedly to keep this sweet part-time gig. But could I get my tongue around the corny patois?
Corporate English is an office creole in which many speakers are so fluent that they might not even notice a change in dialects when they come home in the evening to their dinner and children and Mad Men. It is a jargon full of cog-wheel images of monetary and managerial thought. It doesn’t suit home life. The metrics of making something from scratch with a small child are impossible to measure. Have you ever watched a Powerpoint on upcoming lovemaking? What is the added value in cleaning your own spotted trout? Family problems are never irregardless of alcohol. Corporate English is business metaphors, money and power are its inspiration.
Slow learner. Black humour. Kiss ass. Karaoke nights. Overstress. Sexual harrassment. Everyone in the office had an exit strategy they might not realize they were hatching. And the hole I was digging was this empty space where my voice used to be. The academy is derided for its pettiness, the office for its fickleness. At least three of our meetings were about unexpected changes in cubicle seating.
Listening to CE spoken left me stupefied. But to actually see Corporate English can give the trench-jitters to even the hardiest war generals. “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” is the famous remark of US General Stanley McChrystal after seeing a PowerPoint on Afghanistan that looked like a bowl of angel hair pasta. It is believed that some kind of value is added to CE when it’s paired with a PowerPoint presentation. “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” the general added. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.” (Some problems in the world are not solved by a bullet, either.) In my time with the tuition company I had the opportunity to witness my boss perform three PPT slideshows. They were high definition displays of power, full of bullets, aspirational if there was any point to them at all. In Powerpoint, utopia is next fiscal year, forward-thinking predictions requiring stock footage. Stock replaces real. Real No true documentation will suffice. And graph and Venn and other non-representational Miro-esque abstractions are meant to interpret metaphors like human resources and risk premium.
I thought of PPT as office rhapsodies. I tried to imagine my boss as a rapper and this slideshow his video. Rap is a slang also joined by metaphors for money and power, and among staff bling, gangsta, hater, and pimped, were rap loanwords used when discussing the look of our website.
I was foreign to CE, frustrated by it. I was a CESL in need of a tutor. But the tuition company where I worked was not going bankrupt like the English schools down the street. I was the one who skipped classes and resisted learning CE. All I heard was Lutz’s doublespeak in the company’s slang, didn’t respect the inflection. I chalk it up to cant, another money language — a secret thesaurus of the criminal class. Cant’s enticements are its colourful verbiage and vivid metaphors, obscurities which serve to veil in plain sight all the less-savoury aspects of illegal business. Rap and mob movies are the most entertaining outlet for hearing North American cant, but CE is by far the most visible, form of cant used in English.
Most slang is teasing and ironic and a nuanced antisocial statement, a reaction to the preconceptions of others; not so for Corporate English. CE’s cultural status makes it a self-imposed, deadpan, face-value cant. With its pithiest phrases and acronyms minted by journalists (Future Shock, Tipping Point, USP), and its many words lifted from laboratories, road crews, rap, and the military, CE is not ironic, it trusts wholeheartedly in the tested value of its language’s debtors.
Outliers. Change-agents. Blue sky. Actionable. Integrated. Embed. Diss. Props. Skillset. Narrative. Go live.
Irregardless has been in use in CE longer than the i-fad, the long tail, the tipping point, and metrics combined. The stubbornness of irregardless in CE usage is found in the dialect’s meaning of the word, its close attachment to the central theme of power. Irregardless, the prefix hangs a double-negative flaw on the word that is so unnecessary, and suffuses it with pungent ironies that staff cannot mention in front of boss. Power is never corrected. Power corrects bad behaviour. But I could not tell my boss the correct way of saying irregardless. It is a pointless word. But the staff must remain loyal to the boss and quiet even irregardless of the nettle word. Maybe practitioners of CE perpetuate this disgrace unconsciously, but that is rarely the case with language, which is communally enforced. To remain employed, staff must accept irregardless. To make its power plainspoken, and plainly spoken, so that only a petty snob on staff would correct his boss during a meeting for such a slummy and irrelevant act of stupidity — I offer irregardless as the locus for Corporate English and the kryptonite source of its stamina.
The misadjudication of penultimate has likely found its correct place in CE usage, by coming second, after irregardless,s in CE’s list of most enduring words.
A similar theme of power can be found in the green economy, a concept that makes everyone go digging in their mind-gardens for ways to grow their business, grow their brand, grow their sales. What kind of bitter seed must a boss plant to grow sales? But in CE, sales and debt are all there is to talk about, so you constantly need fresh money synonyms the way rappers use new aspects of materialism to express their success.
Likewise while at the company I looked for opportunities to grow my vocabulary. But it never sunk in what was being said at meetings, because my fascination with the language was as a fiction writer. I was a part-time dummy, and I used that as my excuse to remain detached and amused and ultimately fail at being employed.
I found Corporate English was not mine to drop into my conversation. I held no possession over its glossary. After this realization, I sat through our Monday morning meetings silently smiling. Boss certainly never made me learn how to open PowerPoint. I did not find any other clear ways to communicate my thoughts either, not without feeling condescended to. But speaking without CE is an obstinate and snobby way to work. I learned the choice was to make life difficult for myself, or assimilate.
In the time I worked there I watched plenty of others in my department with an ironic handle on CE get laid off without notice and given an hour to clear out. The trench-jitters were setting in. I expected my end to come any day. I recalled how in eight years of French immersion at public school I never learned to speak or write it as well as I could read it. With my tongue tied by my occupation in this company, I figured my chances of survival in it were dim. I lamented my condition and my paycheque hanging in the balance.
So, as my ever-patient and sympathetic reader might have gleaned, one spring afternoon on my lunch break I decided to visit the library to find books about the greater destiny of language, in the hopes that what I found might help me learn CE and bolster my sense of duty to my employer. If all languages are fundamentally alike in our brains, as Noam Chomsky has asserted, then what is my hairy problem with Corporate English besides a fussy academic stubbornness?
My reading related my resistance to this lame English to the seven thousand living languages on the planet that are at risk of going extinct this century. I began to come back to Lutz’s side. The more I read, the more I considered Corporate English as possibly the ultimate pine beetle of William Burroughs’ imaginging, one language as an all-exterminating virus. MBA petri dishes breeding fire ants capable of wiping out the planet.
“I don’t mean to downplay the challenge of conserving species and ecosystems,” said the linguist and author David Harrison, whose life work is to archive dying languages, “but languages are more critically endangered. They are going extinct faster. And these languages contain some of the secrets to human survival and adaptation.”
Already fewer than a hundred languages are spoken copiously around the world. Before the end of this century, half of all languages spoken today will be extinct. Soon we will all speak Corporate English.
At the tuition company I saw only one way for employees to learn any of the outside world’s secrets to survival and adaptation. It came in the form of a request to boss for a Pro-D day. A Monday away from your desk will be granted, but only on condition of successful application to attend a three-night conference on CSS and Google analytics in the windowless basement rooms of a remote hotel in Maple Ridge.
I worked at a slang’s pace already, what with my full-time salary and twenty-four-hour workweek. I never had the added gall to request one, I came to the office with gall enough to think doing so was my pro-d.
“Each language is a way of perceiving the universe,” said Borges.
“All people are simply different options,” Wade Davis often says. Davis, a Canadian ethnobotanist who gave the 2009 Massey Lecture on his study of the history and language of Polynesia, an extinct culture that once spread across the Pacific ocean: “Ten thousand square kilometres. Tens of thousands of islands flung like jewels across the open sea.” The navigators of Polynesia, as Davis learned, could name by memory over two hundred and fifty stars in the night sky, and could make their way through “vast oceans to distant atolls” by interpreting the colour of the clouds and the way the waves broke, “each island with its own distinct refractive pattern as unique as a fingerprint.” Davis has said “if you took all of the genius that put a man to the moon and applied it to the ocean, you’d get Polynesia.”
The ethnobotanist Davis and the linguist Harrison agree that one universal language for all mankind spells disaster. Universal tongue does not imply or promise peace and unity but does, at least, mean the extinction of every other way we have for seeing the world. Davis asks us to imagine if instead of the primacy of English, how we would feel if our universal language was Swahili or Inuktitut. But what I find more distressing and easier to picture is the day when Earth speaks CE.
“As for English,” the French revolutionary Bertrand Barere, said in a political speech given in January 1794, “a great and free language on the day when it mastered the words ‘The Power of the People,’ English is now no more than the dialect of a tyrannous and despicable government, the dialect of banks and letters of credit. Our enemies turned French into a court language, and thus they brought it low. It is for us to make it the language of peoples…It is the destiny of French alone, to become the universal language.”
Meanwhile two thousand species of birds, and their wild songs, have gone extinct along the Pacific Ocean since Polynesia.
In his book Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, the Canadian writer Mark Abley finds remarkable differences in perspective between the Australian Aboriginal language of Jaru and English. “Writing in English, I naturally say ‘Jaru speakers.’ But I should probably say ‘Jaru listeners.’ Being wise, in Jaru, is ‘having ears’: mangir-djaru. Being unwise or silly is ‘having no ears’: mangirgir-mulungu. What in colloquial English we mean when we say somebody is dumb, the Jaru language conveys by saying a person is deaf.” How much more of the Jaru life is spent deliberately listening, and how much more often are we expected to simply talk? To go from Jaru to Corporate English would make an attentive listener look dumb. To go from Corporate English to Jaru would make an assertive speaker look deaf.
On my lunch break I read another example in Abley’s book—an Inuktitut word with a double-meaning like dumb, but to describe someone who is nervous. Puijilittatuq means something like nervous but is commonly translated in its literal form as, “He does not know which way to face because of how many seals he sees at the ice surface.” One word for that. Is there a word like puijilittatuq, is there an English moment like it? Might the south’s closest equivalent to puijilittatuq be when we feel frozen with stage-fright? But add to that an empty stomach, feeling truly frozen, and possibly in more danger? It puts the speaker in the eye of a common experience, with a clear point of view, and a high poetry in the compactness of its imagery.
For Canadians to the south, a word like puijilittatuq has roots in modern medical observations instead. Our English words for puijilittatuq are not images of a landscape or other animals and our relationship to these external forces. Totems are out of fashion in talk of the Western mind. Nervous is a disconnected landscape, its roots are in the tangled threads of a medical cadaver. Nervous is a self-centred, biological, and inert word. Nerves, we should prefer them to puijilittatuq? I can easily see my prickly nerves and I become preoccupied with the frayed physical condition of my electrified feelings, and in trying to see my nerves maybe I fail to notice whatever these seals and fragile ice around me are, what they represent to me that raised such an alarm. When seals in the office surface, what am I capable of? The word puijilittatuq implies some call-to-action. The word nervous asks that the speaker’s consciousness please hold still, irregardless of the seals, and take this or that medicine to calm the puijilittatuq.
Depression, something to be paved over.
Leverage knowledge capital, to steal an employee’s ideas.
Language directs one’s mental picture of life. And when I spoke Corporate English I saw the world as managers do, as a very tiny, manageable place. Through the lens of CE, Earth was spelled the same size as a circle on a PowerPoint slide, and all the new customers were like sand. Even when I spoke the language of CE it made me sound tiny, in its world I was as small as a byte passing through our network bandwidth. CE is from the point of view of the boss. In the poetry of Corporate English bandwidth is a manager’s near synonym of puijilittatuq.
I said to myself, I should ungrit my teeth and speak it.
I learned on my lunch-break that in the Hopi language spoken in Arizona and New Mexico for thousands of years, one can talk of things happening without mentioning the thing. The subject and noun can be absent from the sentence and implied by an i suffix on the verb — Abley uses the example of rehpi, “flash (occurred).” How can the Pueblo of Arizona and New Mexico speak in a tongue without a necessity for nouns when they’re so crucial to our ability to speak at all?
“Your inner voice quiets down. Internal dialogue is stimulated by a preparatory desire to speak, but it is not actually useful if there are no other people around.” This was the sense of extreme solitude, as described to a master journalist, felt by the itinerant Julian Assange, master-hacker and creator of the whistleblower website Wikileaks, a man absorbed in the most probing forms of decipherment, of computer languages, and of top secret corporate jargon. Solitude, as Assange describes it, is a Hopi experience, without nouns—the opposite of living in Corporate English, which is a deeply social dialect that relies on nouns to make its point. CE is metonymic, a cluttered dashboard of bobbleheaded headhunters and late deliverables. Whereas Hopi speaks easily of a horizonless horizon.
After lunch I put my library loans beside my computer, and before I had time to finish one e-mail my boss came by to chat. A project that I was responsible for had bottlenecked on my desk. The idea I had was to buy hundreds of used records and swap all the labels to ones that read something-something…dream. But months after the first pitch meeting the new labels still had not been designed yet. Our company now owned hundred and hundreds of used records that were being stored in my cubicle. And I completely forgot about the added cost of glue. My boss wanted to know what I was reading. He told me he was reading a copy of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas on loan from one of the staff he hired recently to write for our website. “Funny,” I said, hearing the off-rhyme in our reading habits, and showed him my library book, David Crystal’s Language Death.
“That’s fictional?” My boss took the book from my hands and began reading at random from the top of a page, “‘…this comment by Ezra Pound: “The sum of human wisdom is not contained in any one language, and no single language is capable of expressing all forms and degrees of human comprehension.”’” Boss continued aloud with Crystal’s reply, “‘So, one way of increasing our stock of human wisdom is to learn more languages, and to learn more about languages. And one way of ensuring that this sum of human wisdom is made available – if not for ourselves, then for the benefit of future generations – is to do as much as we can to preserve them now, at a time when they seem to be most in danger. As each language dies, another precious source of data – for philosophers, scientists, anthropologists, folklorists, historians, psychologists, linguist, writers – is lost.’
“Interesting stuff, is it for a class?” he said and shut Language Death, passed it back to me.
“Yes,” I said.
“Listen,” he said to me, “we need to discuss some items. The company can no longer afford you at this salary when you’re part-time.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said and after listening a little longer to his prorogations about American customers and mortgages and so on, I shook his hand and said good-bye to the other staff—I had an hour to pack my things and be out of there, and I went out into the sun. It was not yet lunch and the end of May, 2008, so I bought a sandwich and a San Pelligrino and I went and sat in the park with friends all afternoon.
After I split from the company and no longer felt threatened by the dialect I regained ninety-percent of the movement in my tongue. No one says anything about it, and I don’t notice any difference in how I talk.
When I walked out that day with my severance promise, I was reminded by our neighbour kiddycorner to my office that the tyranny of a single stupid mindset is what disturbs level-headed people about the popularity of something like Scientology. Scientology is based on a paperback novel. And when I walked by the Scientology centre on my way home from my last day at work at the tuition company I saw they even had a picture of the paperback novel out front of their corner store. The door-greeters asked me if I wanted a free personality test. I thought it was impossible that anyone inside there could be assiduously using the vocabulary of this pulp fiction sci-fi cult. I found it more plausible to hear the language of the bleeding drunks and lost schizoids and crack addicts down the block—that goosebrained babble made more sense for me than Scientology. I unlocked my bike and rode away in the direction of skid row. Language is an ecology of tongues that rhapsodies or goes dry on the same principles of diversity as any species in the ocean, forest or plain. I try to ride along the old roads of language, those left seedy and outgrown by the latest English, because I believe that truth is heard in every writer’s other secret duty, to come up with one new joke, and help recirculate into a common tongue at least one word from the stories of the dead.