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Pardon My Language! (An Introduction to Gertrude Stein)

David Cowles

Mar 29, 2022

For the most part, modern English limits itself to a handful of cases, voices, moods, etc. That would not do for Gertrude Stein. She needed more!

If you are a follower of “Thoughts While Shaving”, you know that language is an important focus. Specifically, it is the thesis of “Thoughts” that anyone’s native language enables, but also severely limits, the conception and expression of novel ideas. A language, after all, is just a collection of words and a set of rules for arranging those words to generate meaning. If the vocabulary is too restrictive or the grammar too prescriptive, the truly creative thinker has limited options:

  1. Express ideas in other media: painting, music, dance, etc. (assuming the thinker is competent in multiple forms of artistic expression).

  2. Express ideas in another language. For example, one could choose a language better suited to carry the thinker’s thoughts. (This assumes there is a language better suited to the thinker’s thoughts, that the thinker can identify that language, and become so proficient in that language that verbal thoughts occur primarily in that language).

  3. Dumb down one’s ideas to conform to the limitations of one’s native (or adopted) language.

  4. Stretch language so that it is better able to convey the subtleties of thought.

Options 1 and 2 are perfectly viable, but realistically, they are only practical for about 1% of the thinking universe. Unfortunately, option 3 is the easiest and, therefore, the default choice for most writers. Most…but not all! A handful of important and prolific writers are capable of transforming their native language so that it can better carry their ideas. In English, we’re primarily talking about Chaucer, Shakespeare, maybe Milton, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein.

Most readers are likely familiar with Chaucer and Shakespeare, at least by reputation, and many will be familiar with Milton and Joyce. But how many readers are equally familiar with Stein?

Gertrude Stein had a problem…and she knew it. She wanted to write, but emerging from the 19th century, writing (either in English or in French, her languages) was incapable of carrying her ideas. For example, in writing narrative, it is very important to connect events. How events in a story fit together is often the substance of that story. You can express relationships among events in any language – but you can only express certain types of relationships.

For the most part, modern English limits itself to a handful of cases, voices, moods, etc. That would not do for Gertrude Stein. She needed more! She needed to be able to describe reality in hitherto undiscovered cases, voices and moods…and so, she made that happen! Instead of conforming her thoughts to the limitations of 20th century English, she transformed English into a new language with brand new grammatical constructs.

With what result?

Well, most native English speakers can read Stein with no problem. Even very young children like and understand Stein. In fact, they seem to understand Stein better than we adults do; they have not yet been programmed to shoehorn their thoughts into prescribed formulas.

New to Stein? Check out The Making of Americans (her magnum opus) or Everybody’s Autobiography (especially Chapter Four: America) or Ida, but buckle up…and prepare to have your mind blown!

Image: Stein in 1935. Credit: Carl Van Vechten

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