230 - Communication 2: Context

Following on from writing about communication I take a simple sentence and explore its missing context. I am hopeful that this will illustrate what the absence of context does to a quote. In consequence it may highlight the effectiveness of a quote that needs no context to succeed in provoking thought.

My sentence is:       On Monday, she went to school.

I did not pick this as much as it picked itself, ruminating in half-sleep early this morning.

On Monday - time identifier
she    - gender-specific identifier for the person involved. 
went to - past tense of verb, to go to. 
school - a location, implying the occurrence of education.

Arabella was delighted to have been allowed into the country as a refugee and felt welcomed by her foster parents. She spent her first weekend in awe of the peace and quiet of the city. On Monday she went to school. 

Becky was ill during the week but recovered very well over the weekend.      On Monday, she went to school.

Clarissa had far too much work left undone, including a load of coursework marking with a deadline after the bank holiday that weekend. Included in the work not-yet-done was a mountain of data input that could not be done from home. On Monday, she went to school.

Deidre worried that Becky’s illness was caused by something like bullying; there were skin blemishes that looked like bruises. While she couldn’t imagine that Becky would let this happen and not share, she had avoided all attempts to discuss these marks, which of course had faded during the week. Deidre happened to discuss this at work and her supervisor took the initiative to insist that she dealt with such concerns immediately. On Monday, she went to school.

Elizabeth is an MP with an interest in education. When confronted by constituents about the lack of interest in education in one her sink estates, she thought it her duty to go investigate, She was particularly concerned that there was a splendid academy adjacent to the particular estate that she had been to visit when new and, considering that abrasive conversation and that she had been a supporter of the increased funding for education, she had realised that she had missed opportunities to understand what was going on in education down at the grass roots. On Monday, she went to school.

Frances is studying dentistry at Texas State. On Monday, she went to school.

George is suffering in the heat and is beyond annoyed that boys are not allowed to wear shorts, thanks to the restrictive school rules. In discussion with his friends at the end of a very hot week, one of the girls points out that the school rules don’t give the girls a problem. So over the weekend George’s circle of friends agree to ask as many girls as possible to lend them spare skirts. While each individual boy agreed they would feel stupid if no-one else dressed in a skirt, their campaign would succeed if they all turned up. George was not convinced that this was or was not cross-dressing and, on asking himself how he felt about this, eventually decided that the issue was more important than whether or not he had gender identification issues. Perhaps he did and maybe he had a future as Georgina? On Monday, she went to school.

Just a few examples. I encourage you to write more and send them to me. Any sufficiently different will be added in subsequent edits.

Let us parse the sentence again. In parallel, I offer the same sentence in Mandarin:

Zhou1 yi,1 ta1 shang4 xue2 le0 ;        周一 她 上 学 了  

Chinese is, sometimes, constructed in a remarkably similar way to English. Zhou yi is the time identifier for Day One; ta1 is the third person, he/she/it; shang4 xue2 is to school and qu shang xue is to go to school; le0 is the modifier for past tense, but often used as a way of demonstrating a full stop or just a finishing noise, not unlike the Australian rising inflexion.

I have checked this with She Who Rules (in almost all matters, but specifically Mandarin; she tells me that the verb go (qu, 去)making   周一 她去上学了 ; 周一她上学去 is less formal and further demonstrates the optional nature of the le qualifier. The inclusion of qu tells us that going to school is special in Chinese in a different way from Britain. Also we have particular oddities with go and go to; go to school but the ‘to’ disappears in go home, go here and there. Perhaps someone will elucidate?

Mandarin skips most of the little words in English and dodges most issues of word form and tense, assuming that context will be sufficient. A literal translation would be: Monday he/she/it go school (did), where the le (了) is a modifier that indicates past tense or sometimes merely an emphasis;  English manages to have many tenses where Mandarin struggles somewhat to have even a second one.  It is because the other language used at home dodges all the little words, that I have come to believe that we should attach the ‘to’ to the verb ‘go’. Changing the way English verbs are taught would fix this issue for East Asian learners.

On Monday is a time locator, but not all Mondays are equal; some are holidays. Monday is the first day of the usual week and so Mondays may not be equal to other school days; for most of the girls, Monday was specifically the first day of the week. Not least, thanks to holidays there are fewer Monday lessons are taught than, say Thursdays. Clarissa went to school on a Bank Holiday. 

she - specifies a section of the community by gender. Mandarin makes no such distinction and all those who have issues with gender labelling will prefer ta over the English personal pronoun. Mrs S continues to confuse he/she (but not it), which either says something about her progress in English or says something quite different about the importance she attaches to gender.

went to - I attach the ‘to’ to the verb because I think the verb is ‘go to’. One can argue that the subsequent ‘to school’ is a dative (I suggest) form of school, in the sense that the going is separated from the place to which she went. However, from writing the Mandarin, I prefer that the verb is modified (identified as different)  to indicate travel (to a place), ‘go to’. I failed to come up with different meanings for this word (went), but I think Deidre and Elizabeth went in a different sense from Becky, a presumably regular school-goer, or Arabella, who will probably become one. Sometimes we use ‘went’ where we mean ‘was taken’, but that is more a sloppy use of language than a different meaning of the verb.

school - has different meaning for Frances, who thinks of school as a label for tertiary education. It also has a verb use, (e.g. to school a dog) but I didn’t find a way of using it that was unstrained. Perhaps you can.  Try this, meanwhile: Haggis was a badly behaved little dog; on Monday she went to school. But I really should be writing ‘went to be schooled’. I also suspect that there are no bad dogs, only bad dog owners.

Does this suggest to you that context may be important?

DJS 20170623
top pic google of course, from here

© David Scoins 2017