Time Travel and Grammar and Pterodactyls and Stuff

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It has suddenly and randomly occurred to me that I know what would make a degree in English a more awesome thing to have. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying anything against the English degree I do have. I understand and appreciate the benefit of all the different literature classes I took. Of course, I did find some of these classes much more interesting than others, but I don’t at all regret choosing English as one of my two majors. It is a cool thing in which to major, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways it could have been even cooler.

Flaming PterodactylOne problem with majoring in English is that it is very difficult for an English major to be wildly successful, financially secure, and highly accomplished shortly after graduating. I mean, I had intended to become a time-traveling Viking ninja Vulcan pirate princess who rides through the sky on her valiant flaming pterodactyl, saving the world from alien invasions and other disasters. (Except I only just now made up the bit about the flaming pterodactyl, but I like it, so I think I’m keeping it in my official life plans.) But here I am, three weeks after graduation, and my current lot in life is applying for jobs while making plans to attend grad school for library science. Which is, of course, a cool thing to do, but somewhat lacking in time travel and epic interstellar warfare and pterodactyls and stuff, and I don’t even get my own awesome theme music.

Dear Albert Einstein, You really messed up my life with that whole not-traveling-faster-than-the-speed-of-light thing.

Dear Albert Einstein,
You really messed up my life with that whole not-traveling-faster-than-the-speed-of-light thing.

When I was a small child, I was told that America was the land of opportunity and that I could grow up to be whatever I wanted, but now they suddenly tell me that I can’t. Time travel isn’t possible, they tell me, and it probably won’t ever be possible because nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, and I can’t even have a pterodactyl because they’re extinct, and even if I did have one, I couldn’t set it on fire because then it would die. I tell you, my dreams are dead. Deal with it, people tell me. Life is tough, they helpfully add. And so now I’m left to live my ordinary non-time-traveling and pterodactyl-less life and to wonder if maybe things would have worked out better if I’d been a physics major or a biology major or something. I guess we’ll never know. Except that I haven’t ever heard of anyone else having time machines or flaming pterodactyls, so I suppose it’s not possible no matter what your major is. This is very sad and clearly means that the entire educational system is flawed and uncool.

I’m not sure if my cool idea would actually help matters much in that regard, but it would be cool anyway, which is all I’m really aiming to achieve right now. And, while it doesn’t actually facilitate time travel, it would in theory be quite useful in the event that science people manage to invent time travel despite the whole speed-of-light thing. My idea is this: English programs should, in addition to fostering writing skills and teaching literary analysis, involve linguistic studies such as etymology and grammatical development over history. It wouldn’t surprise me if some English programs already do so, but that certainly is not widely considered to be a standard element of college-level English education. I think it should be. Here is a list of reasons for this suggestion.

Pictured: Old English

Pictured: Old English

1. If you’re going to study literature, and you logically decide to include old literature because it’s awesome and educational, you ought to be able to read things that were written a long time ago. Granted, as it is, it’s not uncommon for English majors to learn some Middle English in order to read the Canterbury Tales. I did, and it was pretty awesome. (Note: Neither Middle English nor Old English is the correct term for the language of Shakespeare or the King James Bible or any other writing of that time period. That’s still modern English; it’s just old-fashioned compared to today’s colloquial English. Middle English is very different from modern English, and Old English is literally a different language.) But very few people bother to actually become proficient in versions of English any older than that of Chaucer’s time. It would be very interesting to read even older works, such as Beowulf, without modern translations.

2. It would solve various problems related to the issue of grammar. I admit that I am one of those people who gets annoyed every time I see someone else make a grammatical error. A misplaced apostrophe or a “me” when it should say “I” is enough to distract me, and frequent repetition of such mistakes cause me to question the intelligence of the writer. (I admit that such mistakes do indeed happen in my own writing occasionally, usually because of typing errors, and you can be sure that I am even annoyed with myself in such cases than I am with other people when they make mistakes.) Yet I don’t actually understand grammatical rules and terminology that well. I know when a word is wrong because it’s in the wrong tense or it’s singular when it should be plural or something like that, but I can’t explain things like why one preposition fits a certain context better than another or adequately define things like “pluperfect tense” or “subjunctive mood”. I learned grammar by following the example of people and books that used correct grammar, not by actually memorizing grammatical terms. The grammar that I learned through my schoolwork as a kid all went in one ear and out of the other, and it was neither obvious nor problematic because I was already capable of using correct grammar, even without actually understanding it. Even now that I’ve picked up a more detailed understanding of grammar, I still think it’s a confusing and horribly boring topic. But yet it annoys me greatly that there are so many people who aren’t capable of using correct grammar. I realize that the reason for this is that most people were exposed to more bad grammar as children than I was, but still, that shouldn’t have to mean that bad grammar is considered perfectly acceptable. Sometimes, the meaning is actually altered or at least obscured by grammatical errors, and even when it isn’t, they are a distraction. So clearly, grammar cannot be deemphasized in education, even though it’s boring and hard. But I think it would be both more interesting and less difficult if the rules made sense, and it seems to me that they would make more sense if there was historical context. English is basically a muddle of other languages, so our grammatical rules presumably have their origins in the grammar of these other languages.  There must be some interesting and informative stories behind the development of English grammar.

3. On a similar note, it would be an awful lot easier for an English speaker to learn a new language if he/she already had a good grasp of linguistics. There are relationships between languages, and these relationships are interesting and useful, and I can’t see more about them because I don’t really know much about them. But it would be very cool to be able to use knowledge of one language to more easily learn another language.

I helpfully have provided a picture of a cow. You're welcome.

I helpfully have provided a picture of a cow. You’re welcome.

4. Language and history are just as interrelated as literature and history are. I’m making a distinction between language and literature here in that literature refers to specific works while language refers to the vocabulary and grammatical traditions by which that literature was written. This point obviously relates very closely to the second one. Etymology is interesting and historically relevant. For example, there’s a very good reason why the English words for “cow” and cow meat (also known as “beef”) are different, while the English word for “chicken” and chicken meat (also known as “chicken”) are the same. I first heard this story from my father when I was a young child, but I looked it up to make sure I was getting the facts right. The facts are that the word “cow” has always been in the English language because it comes from the very old Germanic word for the animal, but the word “beef” has only been in the English language since the 1300s and comes from the Old French word “buef”. The word “chicken”, like “cow”, comes from an Old English word which came from an ancient Germanic word. You see, the pre-Norman dwellers of England were Germanic, and they had cows and chickens, but then the Normans came and became the important people in England and continued to speak French for a long time after that. The Germanic English people still had cows and chickens, and they still ate chickens, but dead cow was a food for the richer people, and thus, it was their name for dead cow meat that remained in usage. We hereby see that an event in English history determined the course of the English vocabulary. I would presume that practically every word in the English language has some story behind it that likewise relates the history of that word’s usage.

5. If we ever do invent time travel, we need to be able to communicate with the people of olden times. I seriously doubt that they would be able to decipher our strange modern dialect. Of course, this issue could be avoided if we had a babel fish like in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or if we used TARDISes, which automatically translate for you. But seriously, let’s be realistic here. What are the chances that we’re going to get both flaming pterodactyls and magical translation technology? Not to sound like a broken record, but that pterodactyl is really important to me.

PterodactylSpeaking of which, I shall end this blog post by announcing that I am in the market for a pterodactyl (not a toy one, a real, live, full-size, flying pterodactyl) and I would appreciate it if you would all promise to let me know if you find out where I can get one at an affordable price. Thanks.

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Thoughts on Time Travel and Stuff

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Most movies or books that involve time travel deal with the premise that the time traveler can cause changes in the past that will affect subsequent events and alter the course of history. The movie Back to the Future is a perfect example of this. (Partly because it makes my point adequately, but mostly because it’s such an awesome movie that I just really want to mention it) By saving his future father from being hit by a car, Marty changes the circumstances of how his parents met. He then spends the rest of the movie plotting to ensure that his parents fall in love anyway so that he doesn’t fade out of existence. What the movie doesn’t mention is that, if Marty McFly ceases to exist, then he never could have gone back in time and messed things up in the first place, so his parents would have met, fallen in love, and gotten married just as they did before he went back in time. And then he would have been born and existed after all. But if he had existed, then he would have still gone back in time and his parents wouldn’t have fallen in love and he never would have been born and… Actually, let’s just stop this train of thought right here. It doesn’t matter whether or not the movie said anything about that because the movie is awesome just the way it is.

Anyway, that’s a pretty common theme in science fiction. Just off the top of my head, I can think of numerous books and movies and episodes of things like Star Trek and Doctor Who that have a similar theme. In my all-time favorite Star Trek episode, The City on the Edge of Forever, Captain Kirk and Spock must decide whether or not to save a certain woman (who Captain Kirk is, of course, in love with) because they know that if they make the wrong choice, the subtle alteration of history will result in World War II never happening and Hitler taking over the world. They just don’t know whether the woman’s death or the continuance of her life is necessary to stop Hitler. I think that one of the things I like most about that episode is that it acknowledges the fact that good guys from the future are just as capable of destructively altering events in the past as relatively normal people like Marty McFly, who don’t really understand what’s going on. As much as I love the show Doctor Who, I feel like it often unrealistically allows the Doctor to meddle in historical events without any affect whatsoever on the future. I can understand the concept that the history of the world as we know it has been shaped by an extraterrestrial time traveler, and that the only reason I didn’t know about all of the alien invasions in Earth’s history is that the Doctor already prevented them. I just think that if we’re supposed to think of it that way, they should explicitly say so more often. In all fairness, they do say so sometimes. The episodes Pyramids of Mars (an older episode with Tom Baker) and Blink come to mind.

This is similar to Douglas Adams’ explanation of time travel, which isn’t surprising because Douglas Adams was one of the scriptwriters for Doctor Who. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Douglas Adams neatly solves the problem by explaining that time is like a jigsaw puzzle. To paraphrase the general idea, the pieces fit together in the same way regardless of the order in which you attach them. If you alter the past, you aren’t changing anything about the present because the present is already there. Even if the things that you do actually do affect subsequent events, those subsequent events have also already happened, so nothing is actually changed. It makes sense if you think of time as being multi-dimensional, just like space, with an objective reality that applies regardless of where or when each individual is. If I pick up my chair and set it on top of my desk, that chair is on top of my desk regardless of whether you’re seven hundred miles away or standing right there next to me and wondering why the camaduka I want my chair to be on top of my desk. Likewise, if you go back in time to 1963 and shoot President John F. Kennedy, he’s dead whether I am also there in 1963 or here in 2012. (Please note that I’m not recommending that anyone go back in time to assassinate people. That would be evil. I’m just saying that if anyone were to go back in time and assassinate someone, the assassination has already happened)

This question of time travel’s role in cause and effect is one of the main ideas behind a book I’m reading right now, called Time and Again, by Jack Finney. I’ve actually read it quite a few times and I always really enjoy it. The book offers a theory which is essentially the same as Douglas Adams’ jigsaw puzzle analogy, although this book uses the metaphor of a twig in a river. The basic idea, though, is that time travel does not result in history being changed. However, the characters are just learning how to make time travel possible, so they aren’t actually sure about that, and that uncertainty is a central point in the book.

Douglas Adams’ theory of time is the one that makes most sense to me. For my own works of science fiction, I use a similar idea by assuming that time is three-dimensional. Maybe sometime I should write another blog post excplaining that. It works really well, because it sounds really technical and science-fictiony, but it makes the theory behind time travel so much more logical. If you’ve read some of my previous blog posts, you’ve probably noticed that I have a thing about making sense. I’m generally in favor of it.

As sad as I am to say it, I don’t really think that non-linear time travel is possible in real life. (Of course, we all travel in time linearly) Time travel serves an important role in fiction, though, partly because it’s really awesome and generally makes for a fascinating story, but also because the questions that it raises are actually relevant for regular linear time. In your life, you may never be faced with a situation in which you, like Captain Kirk, must make a choice that could result in Hitler’s successful conquest of Earthly civilization as we know it, but you will be faced with choices that could result in your failure or success in something, or that could affect details of other people’s lives in negative or positive ways. Like Captain Kirk, you might not have any easy way to know what the right or wrong choice is. Like the characters in Time and Again, you might not even know whether or not it’s really a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but you have to be aware that it could be. Like Marty McFly, you might have already made a bad decision without even understanding why it was wrong. But maybe Douglas Adams is right about everything and whatever happens is just the way things are and we don’t need to worry about the subsequent effects. I say we should trust Douglas Adams on this one; Douglas Adams was a pretty awesome writer.