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The Meter of English, or, Why I Love Mankind - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
The Meter of English, or, Why I Love Mankind
Snagged from manicwriter1271
Leo
You should be dating a Leo.
23 July - 22 August
This mate is honest and loyal, with a sunny
disposition. Though this lion has the tendency
to be arrogant, sulky or smug, he/she is
unrestrained in bed.


What Zodiac Sign Are You Attracted To?
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Hmm. I am a Leo. Sounds like it could be fairly combustible. :)

Anyway, today's random thought is about the rhythm of language. I've been using my graduate degree to put stickers on Sweet Valley High books all day--my rational conclusion is that 90% of every job is utterly stupid, but my irrational response is feeling somewhat petulant--so I thought I'd be a bit esoteric, just to clear the palate before I get back to Elizabeth Wakefield and friends tomorrow.


I have never liked the politically correct word, "humankind." I could never put my finger on why this was, and I always felt like I must be a bit petty to object to the addition of two letters... a single syllable! How could I object to that, when the alternative was to keep a word that had gender connotations?

Well, my answer at first is that I thought it was a needless and silly change. I still do. "Mankind" and "humankind" mean exactly the same thing, and there's no reason to take offense at one but not the other. However, switching "no man" to "no one" in the Star Trek saga cell never bothered me at all (well, once: it bothered me when they actually had Kirk, in one of the movies, draw attention to the change).

Why the difference?

Every now and then, I go on a poetry kick. I don't write it very well--Hallmark card quality at best--but I think it's important for fiction writers now and then to read and write poetry. This isn't for the startling images; I'm not of the school that says imagistic fiction writing is "like poetry"--it's imagistic fiction. I think that fiction writers should experience poetry because poetry is all about the value of word use. There's nothing else--in formal poetry, it's highly structured word use, and in free verse (good free verse anyway), it's literally all you have to work with. The other elements of good fiction may be present, but always in small doses. The words are the point of the poem. I believe that practicing formal poetry with a strict rhyme and meter helps a writer discipline his or her vocabulary, and I believe that all poetry helps bring out the startling means of expression we have available to us.

Which is a long way of saying a short thing: I remembered my poetic meters today, out of the blue. Trochee (long-short, like Star Wars), dactyllic (long-short-short, like "happily"), anapestic (short-short-long, like "in a room"), and of course, the most common, iambic (short-long).

"Mankind" is an iambic word. The English language, on the whole, has an iambic rhythm. I'll grant it's not that strict--we're not in a Shakespeare play--but it's very common. "Mankind" fits into the rhythm of common speech. "Humankind" doesn't just add a syllable, it changes the stress pattern of the word--instead of man-KIND, it's a dactyl: HU-man-kind. The word just doesn't fit in the same sentences as "mankind." It may find its own use--I don't deny the right of any decent word to make its way in the world--but unlike the "no man"/"no one" switch in Star Trek, it's not a change that can be slipped easily into pre-existing texts. It calls attention to itself and breaks the flow of the prose, the spell of the language.

Am I seriously suggesting that a metric foot of the language is more important than trying to respect feelings of people who feel oppressed by the word "mankind"?

Much to the annoyance of some of my college compatriots, I'm afraid my answer is, "Hell, yeah... that's exactly what I'm suggesting."

Write beautiful new prose and poetry using whatever words you like. Anyone who can compose well in dactyls has my undying admiration. But please, leave pre-existing texts alone. It doesn't help the cause of feminism to associate it with the destruction of beauty, and it doesn't help the cause of beautiful language use to deliberately introduce clunky constructions into common readings.

Ah, that's better. I feel all nice and ivory tower-ish now.

And in the interest of proving that I really don't write poetry well, instead of a story, here's a poem. I was goofing around with the chant royale form. It's SW based, and at my site, Vader's Mask. The voice alternates between Anakin and Amidala.

From the Depths of Midnight's Soul

I feel a bit...: Petulant

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