Somehow I just can’t picture all those noble Greeks walking around saying “Hi!” to one another, although obviously that’s what this student meant. Well, no, I don’t actually think she meant “say hi”; I think she meant “he wanted people to greet him.” And isn’t that what she said? But for me, the idea of Creon walking the streets hoping for a “hi” makes him far more sympathetic than he deserves.
The mind’s eye is too often closed in our image-saturated culture, and I’m afraid the mind’s ear is also not getting much of a workout. The sense of tonal appropriateness has got to become blunted when, for instance, an adult woman appears on a Kool-Ade commercial and announces “I’m a mom….” No wonder that my students speculate about “Hamlet’s relationship with his mom,” or write that “the second monster Beowulf must slay is Grendel’s mom.” (In earlier, more with-it times, I used to be able to get a delayed laugh by asking, “Why are you afraid to write ‘mother’? Do you think it’s only half a word?” Nobody gets that joke anymore. Now I try to make the tone point by recommending to students that they just “go all the way and write ‘Mommy.'” Sometimes somebody says “Oh!”)
Can we blame television alone, or must we also ask what our students are reading, and look at a culture where nobody dresses up for anything except job interviews and slangy insults have become the medium of political discourse? The element of tone seems no longer to be a reliable guide in word choice because our culture doesn’t encourage us to internalize it. Or, as one student wisely observed, “The way we use language isn’t proper in our everyday lives and that’s how kids usually speak.”
That must be why I’ve been treated to statements like this:
“Jesus keeps his cool through the whole trial.”
“God…is known as and considered to be top notch.”
“I realize death is part of our life cycle, but it still sucks.”
They’re all true, and they’re all comprehensible, but they’re also all disconcerting at best.
Tone is challenging in the other direction, too, with students producing absurdities as they reach for greater linguistic dignity. But that’s a subject for another day.