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Do You See What I See?

December 23, 2011

Said the night wind to the little lamb, “Do you see what I see?
Way up in the sky little lamb, Do you see what I see?
A star, a star, dancing in the night,
With a tail as big as a kite, with a tail as big as a kite.”

Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ γεννηθέντος ἐν Βηθλεὲμ τῆς Ἰουδαίας,
ἐν ἡμέραις Ἡρῴδου τοῦ βασιλέως,
μάγοι ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν παρεγένοντο εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα,
Ποῦ ἐστιν ὁ τεχθεὶς βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων;
Εἴδομεν γὰρ αὐτοῦ τὸν ἀστέρα ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ,
καὶ ἤλθομεν προσκυνῆσαι αὐτῷ.

Twice I’ve “taught” ancient Greek language to classes comprised of individuals who more regularly attend 12-steps meetings for an addiction.  The Greek looked like Matthew 2:1-2, which you do see above.  The “learners” of that Greek in my classes looked like people who wouldn’t normally be found in the same room together:  people of all educational backgrounds, of various races, of different socio-economic classes.  The main thing in common?  Each of us spoke English as our mother tongue, and we all had “admitted we were powerless over ______ [and] —that our lives had become unmanageable.”  Do you see?  We were different but were the same.  I was the one who’d spent lots of time with the old Greek, from undergraduate higher education days through a Ph.D. in its rhetoric about which I wrote a dissertation.  I was the “teacher” of the classes.  But I was taught by each one of the individuals in the classes by the time we ended the classes.  Do you see?

Here’s another story.  Maybe it’s the same one.  Professionally I don’t teach Greek.  I “direct” university level programs for learners of English who have other mother tongues.  The students in the programs often struggle with English that looks like the “Do You See What I See?” opening lines, which you do see above.  But, just the same, the English teachers in the programs often struggle with the language.  There are as many questions as there are answers.

Let’s take those lines above, for example.  Is it comforting to an ESL learner to learn that the one who wrote those lines (i.e., of “Do You See What I See?”) was himself an ESL learner?  Is it helpful to the ESL teacher to see and to know that the author of those lyrics named himself Noël Regney but that that has nothing to do with “Noel”? Yes, that’s right. The name he gave himself is actually his given name (i.e., the one his parents gave him) but with the letters in reverse order with a minor modification. And the song lyrics he wrote, and that dancing star, with the tail as big as a kite (or as big as a kite’s tail), are as much allusions, perhaps, to the United States’s Cuban Missle Crisis than, maybe, to Matthew 2:1-2. And this Noël, who was married to a lyrics writer at the time, usually wrote the music while she wrote the lyrics. Yes, that’s right. Her name was Gloria Shayne Baker, although that wasn’t the name her parents gave her, and she was the composer, usually. Do you see now what I see? Do you hear what I hear? Do you know what I know?

Let me talk about something else.  Maybe it’s really the same thing.  The fun and funny thing about language is that we users of a language do see and do hear and do know things by it.  We use our languages to decide what’s the same and what’s different.  It’s really no different than the famous puzzle of Heraclitus, the Greek.  Heraclitus famously said τὰ ὄντα ἰέναι τε πάντα καὶ μένειν οὐδέν.  Or he said something like “When a person steps into flowing waters, the person is standing nonetheless in a river.”  Well, we don’t really know what Heraclitus said because we get what he said from what people like Plato said he said.  But it’s all the same to us readers of Greek.  And that’s what we tend to do with our language.  We decide whether we’re insiders or outsiders, teachers or students, and so forth and so on.  I’m not being very clear, and yet for some of you this is as clear as a guiding star in the night.

So now let me just leave you with something else:

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