A Passive Chaos

I have been sitting on the ideas for this post for two weeks now. They are big, unwieldy, and probably unpopular. Today I would like to write, or rather think-out-loud about language, language change, and the act of codification. This discussion will have implications on future themes and explorations, but I think it has to start here.

Is it humankind that imposes our own thoughts about order and structure on the language that we use, or does language bend and shape us to its own animist will?

Ivan Illich, in his "In the Vineyard of the Text" has this to say about order in language:

“'To order' is the interiorization of that cosmic and symbolic harmony which God has established in the act of creation. ‘To order' means neither to organize and systematize knowledge according to preconceived subjects, nor to manage it. The reader’s order is not imposed on the story, but the story puts the reader into its order. The search for wisdom is a search for the symbols of order that we encounter on the page. Medieval poets and mystics stress the motive of the hunt, pilgrims are constantly in front of a fork in the road. All are in search of symbols, which they must recognize and find by finding their own place within their [order]."

According to Illich, "The story puts the reader into its order." From this vantage point it is easy to draw an edge between codification and how we express ourselves through symbolic language and writing. One of the best examples that lends great strength to this argument is the printer, William Caxton. Caxton is reported to be the first individual to print books in England, in 1476, and is on record as the being the country's first bookseller.

S.H. Steinberg, in the exhaustive work "Five Hundred Years of Printing", gives us an insight into how Caxton, and codification, changed forever the words that we speak and type and text (is that separate, its not really typing) today. Steinberg states that:

“Caxton’s real importance lies in the fact that among the 90-odd books printed by him, 74 were in English. Some 20 of them were in his own translations which, together with the prologues and epilogues which he contributed to his other publications, secure for Caxton a lasting place in the history of English prose writing."

In being the first bookseller, and either choosing, coercing, or being paid to print books in English, Caxton and more importantly, Caxton's idea of what the English language was and should be, became the first set of reference materials for teaching, speaking, and writing the English language. "Five Hundred Years..." continues on Caxton's influence:

“In the development of vernacular printing England again occupied a unique position in European letters, as had been its happy lot in Anglo-Saxon times. Just as from the seventh to the twelfth centuries England was the only country in western Christendom which kept its language alive in poetry and prose while the Continent was submerged in Latin, so England entered the era of printing with a wealth of books in the English tongue. The mantle of King Alfred fell on William Caxton’s shoulders. More than four-fifths of Caxton’s books were in the English tongue, either original works or translations. The next generation of English printers continued in this vein, with the result that the victory of English over Latin as the most popular medium of printed literature was assured from the very beginning."

His work of translation are extremely important and help to create another edge between language and culture (a connection that is inseparable) that we will delve into in future posts as well. His 'Englished' version of the Golden Legend is still reverberating and influencing religious spheres, both mainstream and hidden, to this very day.

I want to talk about Caxton, not just because of his wide influence, but also because of the content that he produced. One could easily use Caxton to win the argument that it is not humans that create the order of language (and by extension culture) but that, as Illich observes, once the text is codified it is the story that orders us.

Let's take a look at the below image, of Caxton's offering of the folktales of Reynard the Fox. What jumps out to you? There is the illuminated capital, the elegant black letter titles, but what else? What I see here when investigating these two pages is that there is no order, other than that of natural speech, that breaks apart the text. Caxton uses backslashes at the appropriate intervals to make the text clearer and to give it a rhythm. While outside the scope of this week's post (I warned you, these ideas are a many tentacled fish-headed beast) this codification of the use of backslashes can be seen today in many programming languages, languages which are filtering into our normal vernacular at the edges of 'proper' writing.

What else do we see? Look at the word 'Brunne' in the title, the name of the bear, Reynard the Foxes constant companion and foil to his trickster ways (for the trickster is social and can not fulfill her role unless in the company of others). Brunne is spelled one way in the title, and later in the text, it is spelled bruin. What has Caxton really done here? He has codified, set in amber, the permeability of rules in language.

Look at the brackets, the colons, consider what the author of this post over at the St. Bride Foundation is saying when it is mentioned that Caxton would actually change the spelling of words so that they fit into the justified margins of the page, without breaking a word across two lines, is that precedence for changing and abbreviating spellings to match a one hundred and forty-four character limit?

This post is the beginnings of my decrying what is called linguistic prescriptivism, that insistence that English, or any language really, be spelled or pronounced in a specific way. Pay attention to your environment, have you heard anything that fits the model for linguistic prescriptivism. I believe that this insistence on a frozen in stone, codified language is a gateway drug to other much less vanilla types of intolerance and xenophobia.

Even something as simple as chastising someone younger than you for using texting shorthand, netspeak (yes, I know they don’t call it that anymore, I’m old, whatever, shut up), or even emojis and gifs to communicate with their friends. Remember William Caxton when you witness this behavior. Remember how the great grandfather of English language printing was known to not spell the same word the same way twice and to be beholden to the physical container of the words first, sacrificing any type of standardization or rules of grammar to accommodate the new form factor of movable type. Caxton’s greatest contribution to language was the capturing of its passive chaos, its soft but steady evolution at the hands and mouths of millions of humans.

If the search for wisdom is truly a search for the symbols of order that we encounter on the page or screen or augmented reality projection, how will we ever find that wisdom if we have already declared the search for those symbols to be over?