The Written Word LO20174

AM de Lange (
Mon, 14 Dec 1998 13:21:22 +0200

Replying to LO20150 --

Dear Organlearners,

Tom Petzinger <> writes:

>I have a hunch I'd like to test, namely that the art of the
>written word is slowly being restored in organization life.
>Partly, I think, this reflects the increasing need to capture
>nuance and feeling in ways that fill-in-the-blank forms,
>Powerpoint presentations, and voice-mail messages don't
>permit. Technology may also be driving this trend, as e-mail
>makes it so easy to write or "publish" a letter--and so
>necessary to respond in turn. From where I sit, it seems
>people are doing a lot more writing and perhaps a little
>less talking.

Greetings Tom,

You sit in the USA while I sit in South Africa. This is responsible
for marked differences.

First of all, the USA has a rich history of open and free societies
while South Africa's history is rather rich in closed and repressed
societies. People will speak in a closed and repressed society, but
will seldom write in it because of fear getting caught.

The USA is rich in Information Technology such as word processors and
e-mail applications while South Africa is poor in them compared to the
USA, even though it is by far the country in Africa richest in IT.
Thus people in the USA have far more opportunity to write and to be
read than in South Africa.

I wish what you have written above is true of South Africa. But I
cannot afford to live in a dream, although I live for a dream to
become real. My dream is that all South Africans will live a
creatively in its fullest sense, giving a new hope for the rest of
Africa. But the reality is that even in the New South Africa people
are not encourage to write their minds. If somebody (irrespective of
colour) writes anything unfavourable of a leader (minister,
chairperson, chief secretary), out goes that person because he is not
"acceptable" (that is the official term) any more.

>That said, much of the writing is appalling. Many people
>of a certain age remain stuck in the old, hyper-passive,
>"pursuant-to-your-letter" style. Others of a different (dare
>I say younger?) age are more expansive in their writing
>--if you can get past the spelling atrocities born of whole
>language teaching (a trade-off I accept, grudgingly).

My own education in language since childhood was one of continual
confusion. We were taught grammer, literature and composition as three
separate things, resulting in three different tests and examination
papers. This was the case for all three languages which I learnt up to
matriculate level: Afrikaans (my mother tongue), English (together
with Afrikaans the two official languages of the old South Africa) and
German (because it was said that German is the world's second
important langauge of scinetific communication.) I also learnt some
Dutch as the language to which Afrikaans was closest related and
Northern Suthu as the language most spoken by black peoples in the old
province of Transvaal.

I was taught that grammer (morphology and syntaxis) serves itself. But
since I have discovered how intimately structure ("being") and
function ("becoming") are connected in creativity complexity science,
I now know better. Grammer cannot serve itself. The function of
grammer is to make meaning clear. Grammer serves semantics. Today I
observe hundreds of students trying to say something in a sentence
which is nothing else than explaining grammer, rather than using the
grammer correctly to carry the meaning of what they actually wanted to
say. I see myself in them because I was also doing it heavily and
still cannot escape from it completely.

>Thus, I am wondering whether people are now beginning
>to make a conscious effort to improve the technical or
>artistic quality of their writing as an occupational or
>competitive necessity. I would also love to know if any
>organizations (other than the obvious education institutions)
>are conducting formal or informal efforts to improve the quality
>of the written word within their walls.

Tom, I try to study books on "better writing". But I have a problem.
Very little of them is applicable when I write on something complex,
using technical language. It is then when my grammer also begins to
fail. I will make errors which, because of the complexity, I am not in
a position to perceive. This is a strange thing, but it happens
frequently. We, I and a wonderful lady Lynette (who used to help me
correcting my language) discovered this. We also discovered that
especially when I try to articulate my tacit knowledge, my grammer
fails excessively. I always felt like coercing her to do the job by
paying her because for her to follow my mind boggling meanings is
taxing to her. She has to read my writing several times before she is
satisfied with her work. One of those readings is to make sure that
her grammatical corrections do serve the meaning. Unfortunately, she
has moved to Cape Town at the other side of our country.

I wish I had another Lynette. We had many a long dialogue before we
understood each other. But we succeeded because we were both commited
to language as the basic art of expression. Since then I have tried to
make use of two other people, but it is just not the same. They are
comitted to making money, not to the artful use of a language.

I must say clearly that I have learned more from her than from any
textbook by submitting my own writing for examination. It clearly
vindicates for me the importance of experential learning, besed on the
tenet "to learn is to create". On the other, Lynette (an English
teacher for schools and colleges) acknowledged that she also has
learned much because of the interaction with me. Why? Often I had to
"bend" some rules of the English language to get a precise meaning
through, making her sensitive to the fact that grammer cannot serve
itself. Since my mothertongue is Afrikaans, I use "Afrikanerisms" so
persistently that she has learned to have more patience with pupils
and students. It is very difficult for me to get rid of these
Afrikanerisms, probably as difficult as it is to get rid of some kind
of addiction.

I once suggested in a faculty meeting that we ought to have a language
officer just as we have a public relations officer. (Many of the
faculty members are Afrikaans speaking people like me, having little
opportunity to speak English in a cultivated environment.) But that
suggestion was viewed by much contempt. The faculty's business is
science, not language. If someone felt inferior in his/her usage of
English, that is a private matter and something which should not apply
to a faculty member.

Post graduate students who bring the "entropy production" and
"complexity" angles into their work, usually bring their writings to
me so that I can suggest improvements. Often I, king "one-eye" in the
land of the blind, have to suggest improvements on the language rather
than the technical information. This surprises them more than me.

>All thoughts welcome, in private or via the list. Apropos of
>this subject, I must say that the high quality of the writing
>on this list (none more than At de Lange's) is one of the
>pleasures that keeps me reading.

Tom, thank you for your kind words. It means more to me than you can

But I know that I have not mastered the art of writing in the English
language. I will need guidance till the day of my death. But such
guidance is not easy to get. (If anyone you are aware of an error
which I often make, send me a note in private and I will be extremely
grateful to you.) Furthermore, I have a typing dislexy which causes me
to correct many words as I type them. Unfortunately, my email
application (MS Outlook) does not have a spell checker. And since I do
not want to make use of MS Office or MS Word for a number of reasons,
I will have to go without a spell checker. Bundling can become a

You may have wondered why I make concord errors so easily. The simple
reason is that in my mother tongue Afrikaans it is not possible to
make concord errors because it does not have declensions and has only
three tenses: present, past and future. What, is it possible for any
language to operate with full expression capabilities using only three
tenses? Yes, even so much so that it becomes difficult to learn
another language with a more complex verb system when a languge with a
simple verb system is one's mother tongue.

Afrikaans, being the youngest language of the world, developed to
serve comunication between people with an European culture, people
with an African culture (Xhoi peoples and Banthu people having totally
different grammers) and people with an Asian culture (Malaysians and
Indians). Thus all these people did something extraordinary to the
basic languages (Dutch, Low Saxon and French) which served as
substrate for Afrikaans during the years of its emergence (1660-1760).
They simplified the morphology of the words (noun and verb systems) by
a simultaneous complexification (enriching) of the syntaxis, the order
in which words are used. Thus it is possible to construct many every
day sentences in Afrikaans which cannot be handled by the morphology
and syntaxis of the Englsih language. Since it is impossible to
translate these sentences into English, I have to bend the rules of
English grammer to get something of their orginal meaning across. The
written history of Afrikaans is but a century old.

The worst of all, when I am tired after having written a taxing
contribution, my ability to spot grammer spelling and concord errors
are almost zero. The solution is to wait with sending the
contribution, first correcting the errors the next day when one is
fresh again. But this is not how a dialague works, except between
tortoises or sloths. Please have patience with me.

Best wishes


At de Lange <> Snailmail: A M de Lange Gold Fields Computer Centre Faculty of Science - University of Pretoria Pretoria 0001 - Rep of South Africa

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