Soon to come to this blog site is a lengthy review of John Simon’s execrable piece of trash, Paradigms Lost. It is an absolute treasure trove of the ignorance, stupidity, elitism, snobbery, and class warfare that infects the Shamans, Mavens, Scolds and Guardians. I want to adumbrate my approach to this screed in part by using the vituperative language and 25 cent words in the way Simon does. Simon is what I call a guardian, i.e. a person of some professional standing in a field of language, be it writer, reporter, linguist, litterateur (OK, I misspelled this last word), who tells us how to speak and write. Sometimes they are helpful, other times not. Edwin Newman ranks with Simon whereas William Safire at least tried to learn a bit about language before pontificating.
So it was with great pleasure that I read Simon’s holding up as a model of how to learn and use English correctly the late Vladimir Nabokov. When I read that, I thought, Aha! That is not the way it happened, as most teachers of foreign languages know. Rare indeed is the adult who enters a new language as an adult and so masters it that he becomes a major author. So when I got home (I read the book on vacation), I took off my shelf two books, Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory, and a good biography of him, V.N., by Andrew Field.
For those of you who do not know him, here is a bit of Wiki on him:His first nine novels were in Russian, and he achieved international prominence after he began writing English prose. Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), his most famous novel in English, was ranked fourth in the list of the Modern Library 100 Best Novels; Pale Fire (1962) was ranked 53rd on the same list, and his memoir, Speak, Memory (1951), was listed eighth on the publisher’s list of the 20th century’s greatest nonfiction. He was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction seven times.
Here is how Simon presents him to us in order to convince us ordinary little people just how ordinary we are, on p. xiii:
“I suppose I must credit my coming to English relatively late with my especially analytical, exploratory, adventurous approach to it. I am always surprised when people marvel at the way some foreigners – Joseph Conrad, Karen Blixen, alias Isak Dinesen, Vladimir Nabokov – wrote English. If you have a sufficient feeling and facility with language, coming to a specific tongue later rather than earlier can prove a distinct advantage.”
The author has already explained how he grew up speaking Serbo-Croatian and Hungarian, acquiring German so early he surprised his grandmother by using the German word for “multitude” at age four.
The effect of all this is to make the typical foreign language teacher who grapples with idiomaticity in the second language feel like they haven’t sufficient feeling, perhaps for anything. In reality, Simon reveals he encountered English by going to school in England at an early age, what some of us would call a wonderful immersion experience. But that’s us; the real issue is the Simon and these authors cited are just so damned superior to us.
But what does Nabokov say about himself? On page 28 of Speak, Memory, he says, “During one of his short stays with us in the country that summer, he ascertained, with patriotic dismay, that my brother and I could read and write English but not Russian.” Hmmmm. That was in 1905, making him five years old.
Nabokov’s biographer opens chapter 3 with a lively picture of the aristocratic Nabokov household on p. 32 of V.N.:
“The torrent of English/Russian/French that burst upon the readers of Ada was the way that the Nabokov family actually spoke. Nabokov said that he had the perfectly normal childhood of any trilingual child, but, in fact, this cacaronic discourse was his unique “family” language. When he was a student he used to annoy his teachers y salting his essays with English words, and he has made a strong claim that he did not write in Russian but created his own special Russian. Similarly, he did not “write in English” but created his own unique English.”
So Nabokov was playing word games in three languages before he was an adult, before he was an adolescent. What I have not found was mention of his governesses, one French and one English.
I realize most of you had such governesses growing up in your aristocratic households, as Simon did and most of the European aristocracy that he takes as his circle did. Nevertheless, you probably struggle, as I did, with getting your language idiomatic and fluent. Think how nice it would have been if you had had a native speaker governess and could play multilingual word games within your family.
My snottiness and sarcasm shines through, I am sure. But Simon deserves that and more. All English speakers are deluged with the inane comments of the mavens and scolds, the guardians and the shamans, all giving us bullshit reasons we are incompetent in our own language. Those people are unforgiveable because they seek to harm.
To further convince you of Simon’s ill intent, I’ll quote a line from this book that might do the trick:
“Furthermore, for “ladies’ hairdresser,” one should write “women’s hairdresser,” not because of trendy support for the more fanatical shock troops of feminism but because a hairdresser who restricted his clientele to women who are ladies would soon go out of business.”
Simon first came to my attention back in the 70s on the Dick Cavett show where he debated the issue of Black English with Joey Dillard, a linguist. At one point, he stood up, as I recall, and declaimed, “I am not talking about people so stupid they do not know the difference between the nominative and accusative cases!” This from a man whose native language was a case language, who used German from an early age, another case language, and who studied Latin and Greek for years in school, both case languages.
Dec. 3, 2017 “Soon” was very optimistic. A year and a half later all I can say is I started on it.
It is with chagrin I read this and realize it is over a year old! My only saving grace is that I actually have started the piece. So, yes, it is still coming and I believe it is a dagger in the heart of Prescriptivists (note: Prescriptivists, a movement of severely ignorant pedants. Prescription, in some form, is necessary if we are to have a standard, which we do require). So, hold your breath.