The English language is pocked with pitfalls of various sizes and danger—even the best speakers can’t get through a day without making speech errors and, unless they proofread carefully, writing errors. Almost every rule comes with its list of exceptions; dialects and idioms vary from country to country, state to state, town to town, in some cases street to street; the vocabulary shifts and morphs and burgeons; synonyms and homonyms and look-alikes confuse the eye and ear. Every native speaker is aware of some or all of these sources of frustration, and every serious speaker or writer struggles with them.
One aspect of English that we “native speakers” don’t think about much is the pronunciation of individual letters, but that’s a factor that makes the learning of English, especially by a speaker of a Romance language, even more confusing—the vowels are particularly tricky.
When I’m working with the writing of a student who is speaking English as a second (or third, or fourth—Americans are comparatively very lazy about language acquisition) language, I remind myself of these issues, spelling especially. And I try not to present an ESL error as a “Horror” because I am deeply impressed by anyone who not only ventures to speak a new language but also copes with it on an academic level of reading and writing. (I studied French for six years. I had a good accent, could converse and read with some fluency, and wasn’t afraid of it. But I never took a course in a literature other than my own—not even French—that involved reading fifty or more pages a week, sometimes in an earlier form of the language, as all my English lit students including ESL must. I can’t imagine doing so, although probably if I had moved to France while still a student I would have discovered and perhaps achieved the profound improvement necessity can spur.)
Nevertheless, I couldn’t pass up this assessment of Beowulf, the great hero of Anglo Saxon poetry, slayer of Grendel, Grendel’s mother (how’s that for the name of a monster?!), and the hoard-guarding dragon. Courteous, confident, courageous, and evidently charismatic, he was admired by foreign kings, feared by enemies, and loved and respected by his own people. Obviously an “idle figure”?
Here’s the whole sentence:
“Everybody looks at Beowulf as an idle figure because he saves the lives of his people.”
My student clearly had no intention of criticizing Beowulf as a layabout, a lollygagger, a do-nothing, a malingerer, a sloth, a laggard, an indolent otiose oaf (Wow, look at all the Ls in there! L as in LLLLLAZY!). Nobody who is any of those things is likely to save even his own life, let alone the lives of his people.
My first thought was that she had meant to call him an “idol.” Certainly he was held in high esteem, and when he died his people built a high barrow, or burial mound, over the hoard he had won, both in his honor and as a (temporary, alas) deterrent to enemies who might doubt the greatness of the tribe and its hero.
I then wondered if she had in fact meant an “ideal figure.” He was that too.
This student is Spanish-surnamed and speaks with an accent that suggests that English is probably her second language, or at least her second-acquired language. So I played with Spellcheck. I typed in “idel,” thinking “idehl” or “idayl.” The recommended change was “idle.” Choice number two was “idol”; number three was “ideal.” I then typed in “idil,” thinking “ideel” or “idill.” Choice number one was idol; then “idyll,” “idle,” “dial,” “idols,” and “ideal.” If Spellcheck could come up with “idol” and “ideal” for either of these misspellings, then I think my student might have intended “ideal” or “idol” with either of these spellings.
See what you think.
And while we’re on the subject of heroes who save the lives of their people, let us remember that today is Memorial Day in the U.S. (previously called Decoration Day, because the first celebrants of the day were decorating the graves of Union soldiers who had fallen in the Civil War). The terms “Memorial Day” and “Decoration Day” coexisted until 1967, when “Memorial Day” became the official one. In 1968 Congress, those idle figures, changed the date of this and three other holidays from a specific calendar day (Memorial Day had been May 30) to a Monday near the specific day, in order to make three-day weekends; Wikipedia is probably right to speculate that “changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.” We might also consider whether ending the draft, and consequently making war deaths less immediate in many communities, has contributed to this nonchalance.
But be that as it may, honoring those who gave their lives to protect their people is, as a phrase I recall from Responsive Readings back in my church-going days would have it, “meet and right.” Even a pacifist should be proud to say that whether or not any war was right, or any individual soldier was an idol or an ideal figure, anyone who offers to lay down life for the sake of his or her people deserves respect, appreciation, honor. While waiting for the coals to heat up in the barbecue, build a mental barrow for our noble war dead. Think of all the things you treasure; put them in the barrow, because those are the things that have been won and preserved. While you’re at it, you might also think of other heroes of this nation, all those who fought selflessly against the powers of darkness: the champions of civil rights, human rights, workers’ rights; the teachers; the scientists and physicians; the artists (Decoration Day/Memorial Day at one time was an occasion for honoring all the beloved dead and festooning their graves). Make the barrow high, to celebrate the greatness of our tribe and our heroes.