Cape Fear Literacy Council (CFLC) holds its annual Literary Luncheon on Wednesday, June 28 at Pine Valley United Methodist Church, 11:30am-1:00pm. Listen above to hear from Executive Director Yasmin Tomkinson about why CFLC needs support more than ever this year; you'll also hear from the keynote speaker, Dr. Elliot Engel, about his mini-lecture, Our Slippery Mother Tongue, a Light History of English. See an extended transcript of my conversation with Dr. Engel below.
Gina: Elliot, you are coming down for the Literacy Council here in Wilmington.
Dr. Engel: Right.
Gina: Have you been here before?
Dr. Engel: Yes. In fact I have been there 50 times, not for that. but UNCW has an evening program where they have a dinner and a dinner afterwards. And I think I just did my 43rd for them last gosh last April and I've spoken in high schools throughout Wilmington because of my work at the university. I covered an awful lot of counties and New Hanover was certainly one of them.
Gina: And your specialty is language and literature...
Dr. Engel: Actually it's not, my specialty is Charles Dickens. But we felt that a topic like Our Slippery Mother Tongue: A Light History of English would work much better for a literacy luncheon than Dickens. And to be honest, I talk about Dickens all the time. So I'm delighted to be on something. I certainly have done lots of research on linguistics and English language my field specialization is Dickerson's but I'm an English professor so I should be able to cover anything that has to do with writing.
Gina: What drew you to Dickens?
Dr. Engel: Oh, well actually it wasn't Dickens. I went to UCLA for graduate school and the absolute best professor in the entire department. Her name was Dr. Aden Nisbett. But her field happened to be Dickens. I was never crazy about Dickens. I took her class caught her enthusiasm and the reason I'm a Dickens today is because of her. If she'd been a Jonathan Edwards, I'd be in Colonial literature. If she would have been in Belgium, I'd be a history professor. It really was the person. Once I got into Dickens and ended up loving him, I think it's somebody I would have wanted to be in, but it took her enthusiasm and her great teaching to make me turn to Dickens in the first place. And then once I read him I was hooked. But it certainly wouldn't have been someone I probably would have specialized in without her.
Gina: That's so interesting. You were probably fertile ground to be infected with that virus.
Dr. Engel: Not really- interestingly, because I'm Jewish, the one thing I never really cared for really was A Christmas Carol. The one work of course that everybody knows and you know, and I'm not saying because I'm Jewish I couldn’t appreciate it, I think it's a great story, but it was just not something that was ever read in my house. We weren't into Christmas stories, probably we knew a lot more about the "Gift of the Magi" by O Henry, who as you know probably, is a North Carolina author. And the other thing about Dickens growing up, his novels were four or eight hundred pages longer or longer. So kids don't read Dickens and they certainly don't read him in the original.
And unfortunately in seventh grade I was given Great Expectations to read, which is a great novel, but it's a great novel because it deals with adult themes that you really appreciate the older you get. So no, I mean, it really took one thing Dr. Nisbett said which I agree with and you probably will too, anybody who's a student will-- she said, there is no topic so inherently interesting that a terrible professor cannot make dull. And there is no topic so inherently dull that a great professor cannot make fascinating.
And she was a living monument to that.
Gina: Well I think when I said that I think you might have been fertile for it, I guess because I am holding some assumptions about you, which is that you know you grew up in a stable household, you're smart, and your basic needs were taken care of... I'm always interested- and I was an English teacher for eighth graders for several years I bet you didn't teach Great Expectations.
Gina: No, I did not.
Dr. Engel: Good. Or A Tale of Two Cities, even worse for eighth grade.
Gina: No, I did not. But I did bring in some stuff for my gifted students that was a little above them, but we still made good of it.
Dr. Engel: Sure, because they- and when you say fertile ground up since I didn't feel about being Jewish because a Christmas Carol because I came from a Jewish family, education was absolutely the top thing. I mean you know they say the definition of a Jewish dropout is somebody who doesn't have a Ph.D. and that is virtually true all my Jewish friends went on to the law school of that school. I came to one of them who quit you know after senior year in college. So years of loving to learn and being rewarded highly for and by my mother and father and they were immigrants my father came over from Hungary grew up there and my mother's family had just come over from Russia when she was born. So they unfortunately, you know, were not allowed in their countries of birth to achieve that way. So it became all the more important.
I grew up in the 50s, I was in elementary school then for the new generation to take full advantage of the American educational system, which was way better back then as we all know.
Gina: You know one of the things that really interests me is how to get people excited about literature, people who aren't coming from a garden like that, like you came from.
Dr. Engel: Right, it was a garden, absolutely.
Gina: And you know, you talk about how exciting.. this professor ignited the enthusiasm, and making a bridge here to the Literacy Council, imagine being an adult person and not being able to read.
Dr. Engel: Absolutely. But what I said before applies as much to them if not more than to anybody else and that is if they have the right instructor, if they have a sensitive person, you don't have to know a great deal in depth about literature. But if you're going to teach literacy you have to know an awful lot about how to motivate people who have never been reinforced for-most of them anyway, I would think-intellectual things so I think again what you need for literacy is fantastic mentors tutors I'm not even sure you don't have to be a teacher to teach literacy but you're teaching it. So I think it still applies. A great teacher will be able to make headway with illiterate people more than any other factor, more than the workbooks you know. I think you've got to have the person, the mentor who's leading them.
Gina: I agree completely, I think there's only so much that a teaching program can do with an individual. You've got to be on fire.
Dr. Engel: Absolutely.
Gina: So that's really inspirational. OK let me let me ask you this. This is an important thing for our listeners probably is the thing you're going to talk about is called Our Slippery Mother Tongue, a Light History of English. Tell me about that.
Dr. Engel: OK. Well the emphasis is on "light" because in a 30 or 35 minute talk when you have to cover, and actually begin gosh, I begin 250,000 years ago--what I say is you cannot talk about the history of the English language without first talking about something about language in general. In other words, why am I moving my vocal chords right now? That's the only way that I'm able to communicate with you, and I begin by pointing out that for thousands tens of thousands of years on earth people never use the voice they that use sign language or gestures. So I go way back and give them kind of a background as to how language developed before English. And then most of the talk is about the enormous influence of the the Germanic, why we have a Germanic language. You know, we're not a German language, but we're in no sense a Romance language even though so many of our words are Latin. We are zero percent Latin at its base. and it's the only place that Caesar or any other Roman conquered fully and he did conquer England in 55 B.C. where for reasons I will explain that the talk is the only place where we were forced to speak the language. If we had you know we would be speaking a Latin based language and although there are enormous Latin words that come from a completely different source. So I talk about how this language is really a hybrid of the German and the French. And what makes it remarkable, I mention that we have 650,000 words in our language; that compares to 140,000 words in most languages. We have four times more words than most languages, and we have two times the number of words than the second biggest language on earth, which I'm sure you could guess is Chinese. So the question is, how did we get all these words, why are we part Latin and part French. And I think the more people understand why we speak the words we do the more they will appreciate not just the history of language, but the history of England in America and how we came to be where we are today. God help us.
Gina: So since we have so many words, is that why we're the smartest people on the planet?
Dr. Engel: Yes and of course that's been proven by test after test. All it means are have it. What does it mean. It means we can say the same stupid thing in more different ways than anybody else on earth. And this is why the French absolutely hate us.
Dr. Engel: It had nothing to do with Iraq. The reason the French hate us is the French have a wonderful saying, and I'm not going to say it in French because my accent is bad. Their saying is: to speak properly, you must pick the exact word to match the exact thought. Of course they say that they only have 160,000 words. It drives them crazy that in English we have 650,000 different words. For example, if you want to say you're having a really good day, we have 195 synonyms, 195 words that mean Good. Great. Terrific.Fantastic. But to show you what life is really like, for saying we have a bad day we have 230 of those, 230 different synonyms to say we're really having a lousy experience. So that's why we have Shakespeare in our language. Now, we can't say we're the smartest people because we speak English, but more critics have called Shakespeare the greatest writer of all time in any language by far than any other human being who's ever lived. I'm sure Shakespeare is a genius among geniuses, but what he had that nobody else on earth had who didn't speak English was a vocabulary. He didn't have the 650,000 back then, but he still had, even back then, four times more than almost any language. And if a writer the only tools you have are words of course he had this enormous advantage, as all English writers do today.
Gina: So the French don't like us because we have so many words, but we still can't say anything with a lot of meaning.
Dr. Engel: Exactly. No-they're connected- because that's why we can't. They think we're sloppy speakers, which we are, because we have the luxury. If we stand there long enough, the right words are going to fall out sooner or later. With the Friench, you know, they've got to sit there and think about it.
Dr. Engel: They're jealous underneath it, but they're also very pleased that their handicap, not having a huge vocabulary allows them to pick much more specific, accurate words than we need to.