I am amused by the rather wayward thought that I am not so much as teaching the English language as gradually transforming it. It is not possible to transmit a clean copy of the language wholesale to a student. I am not in possession of a clean copy, for one thing. My English is full of glitches and artefacts, just as anybody else’s is. And then, there will always be errors in transmission, as I noted in the post on eggcorns on Tuesday.

What we produce in a classroom, then, is a variant copy of some variant copy of some ur-sprache lost in the mists of time.

This is true not just of natural language. Any code which requires copying and transmission will degrade, especially, of course, where it also requires compression and decompression. In a demonstration of this, Patrick Liddell of Chicago has produced a video experiment where he uploaded and ripped and re-uploaded a video of himself to YouTube one thousand times. With each compression-upload-decompression-recompression-download cycle, data was lost, and the original video (already, we should remember, a compression of reality) began to take on the idiosyncrasies of the medium.

Liddell’s video project is in fact an homage to the work of Alvin Lucier, experimental composer, who in 1969 performed a near identical experiment with a recording (and re-recording etc. ad infinitum) of his own voice. That piece is entitled I am sitting in a room. 

By analogy, I suppose (and analogy is admittedly never a true index) I am the medium of exchange in the classroom, and my students upload and download their thoughts into me, so to speak. Their English is ‘corrected’ and they try again. And again. And on we go, my students taking on not only the characteristics of the medium but the artefacts thrown up by the contingencies of the lesson (weather, mood, drift of conversation etc.). And at some distant point they carry their English into the world, and distribute it, artefacts and all, to the language gene-pool.

Of course, now that I think of it, they are paying for their English not to degrade, and learning is by definition anti-entropic, so I should perhaps leave my train of thought there.