Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Feeling Language

Hanging out with linguists makes me suspicious of my sense of what "feels" right in usage sometimes.

Lately, I keep hearing that this or that character "has relatability." That sounds weird to me. The idea is that the reader is supposed to be able to relate to this character (not something I tend to look for, but then I'm a big fan of Titus and stuff). It also seems to carry the idea that this ability is located in the character rather than in the reader, or as part of the reading process. If so, then there's a sort of implication that the character would have this quality across time, culture, and readers, no?

What say you, folks, does a character "have relatability"?

Another one I've heard fairly often of late is "X places importance on Y," where X and Y are characters in a novel or something. Placing importance doesn't work for me somehow.


  1. My students say "has relatability" too, and it makes me crazy, perhaps because it's so vague. What, exactly, does it tell you about the character? The very concept of "relatability" is so subjective that it's not terribly helpful.

  2. Anonymous10:39 AM

    sounds totally wrong to me.

  3. So, so bad.

    Read Nabokov's essays about literature about that...

  4. Yeah, sounds really wrong. So does "places importance on."

    You know what drives me crazy? The way students use "more so." They are always saying this in odd ways that don't make any sense gramatically (like when "what is more" or "in addition" is called for), and they also use it in their writing. Worse, they spell it as one word: "Moreso". Augh!!!!

  5. Anonymous12:11 PM

    I had students write a primary source analysis this term, and I had a few of them talk about how source X was valuable because it was "relatable." When never ONCE did I suggest that how one "relates" to a source is any measure of its value. Gah. As a historian, I hate that term/idea (to the extent that "relatability" can is even worthy of being called an idea) because of what you point out - it's so totally anachronistic - how on earth is a 12th c. account of the Crusades supposed to be "relatable" to a 21st c. student?? Will have to ponder how to head this off at the pass in future...

  6. My students say "is relatable" rather than "has relatability." I guess your version is worse, but it's a tough call.

    It also drives me nuts when they use "downfalls" to mean "setbacks" or "disadvantages." (I used to think it was a regionalism, but now I've taught at two different schools a third of the way across the country from each other, and they ALL do it.)

  7. I grit my teeth when they say that something (a poem, a narrative, whatever) "flows." What the hell does that mean? I always ask them, "What sentence of real explanation is that phrase standing in for?"

  8. but I've just realized I veered off-topic. Sorry. Very tired. Both sound wrong to me.

  9. While I don't have anything to do with teaching writing, this sounds like a contrivance of convenience to me. Perhaps it RELATES TO/HAS RELATABILITY TO the trend of creating a verb out of any word that someone has been using routinely. ("I bought a BeDazzler to decorate my jeans" becomes "I'll be BeDazzling my jeans later")


  10. Thanks, all :)

    One of the difficulties for me is that (as Artemis notes) we do change nouns to verbs ("text" becomes "to text") all the time. It's a pretty legitimate way English changes. (My linguist friends tell me it's called "zero derivation," "functional shift," or "categorical change." They have names for everything!!)

    But I think NK is on the mark that "relatability" is a problematic idea, and puts a lot of responsibility on the text, rather than on the student. But, alas, I think it's also a primary focus of teaching in grammar and secondary schools.

    Renaissance Girl, feel free to veer anytime!

  11. Anonymous4:46 PM

    WTH is "relatability"? Does it mean the student understands it?

  12. My linguist friends tell me it's called "zero derivation," "functional shift," or "categorical change."

    I prefer this description of the concept, from Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes: "Verbing weirds language!"

    You know, while resistance to change for no good reason tends to piss me off, and while I'm aware that language always changes and will continue to do so regardless of my feelings on the matter, who can help but cringe at the process sometimes? Those two turns of phrase you mention are just icky.

  13. Late to the conversation, but I just wanted to say two quick things:

    1) Entertainment Weekly uses "relatable" now to describe characters and stories, mostly in reviews, so it's here to stay. (And when they use it for stories, they don't mean "having the potential to be related or told," but "a story you can relate to.") EW writers are *good* writers generally. Sigh.

    2) Artemis, you're a woman after my own heart. I *hate* "flow." I ban it from all explication assignments.