Disgust discussed: Enlisting revulsion to teach syntax

2015-08-25 15:27


It's a truism that small children like disgusting things. Or at least like feeling disgust. And especially expressing it. And they're not alone. Yuck. Yeuch. Gross. Vom. The demotic is brimful of onomatopoeic variations on this colourful theme. 

Disgust is one of the most basic of human responses: almost in spite of ourselves, we are drawn to the disgusting in horrid fascination even as we recoil from it in revulsion. In fact I just experienced a healthy dose of it myself taking the dog for a walk in the rain and only narrowly avoiding being ambushed by a party of extremely well-fattened slugs. On a more elevated plane I might cite Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject as explored in her essay Powers of Horror.

Spanish teachers have the luxury of indulging this delight in disgust (and at the same time teaching the rules of exclamation: 'qué' + noun/adjective + wraparound 'puntos de admiración': ¡Qué asqueroso! ¡Qué repugnante! How disgusting! How repugnant!) not only to elucidate the potentially counterintuitive grammar of 'gustar' but also to cast a light on the human condition.

The earliest experience of disgust is primarily physical (the moral comes later, along with guilt, responsibility and empathy), and usually associated with stuffing all manner of things indiscriminately and experimentally in our mouths: think earth and worms (though the latter are now being touted as a delicacy, not to mention a culinary means of saving the planet). It's an instinctive and instructive reaction to things that are bad for us, a bid for self-preservation, even self-definition. THAT other, alien thing is not ME.

Certain flavours and sensations are not to our liking, and the literal and metaphorical connotations of both 'taste' and 'gusto' are pretty much identical in both English and Spanish. What's more, most pupils will already be familiar with these everyday nouns. Few, however, will have encountered the adjective 'gustatory' - less common even than 'olfactory' - more narrowly scientific in application. As always, exposure to a second language teaches you plenty about your own.

The (relatively) neat-and-tidy logic of Spanish helps make sense of the (superficially) ragbag nature of English. Spanish has gustos AND disgustos; whereas we, overly seduced by 'DISgust', perhaps, seem rather carelessly to have lost 'gust' somewhere along the way. The idea of something 'gusting' me made me laugh at first, but then caution counselled me to consult the dictionary. 

Sure enough, there it was in Merriam-Webster, with exactly the range of meanings you might predict: 'gust', the sensation of taste, inclination, liking, keen delight (hence doing things with 'gusto') - tragically obsolete. No longer in use, but still resonating in the archaeology of language and lived experience. 'Gustable' and 'gustful' - appetising or 'distinguishable by taste' - were judged merely archaic. My pupils would be only too happy to save a few endangered species or resurrect a few dodos as a spin-off to learning their Spanish verbs. And the related Latin refrain De gustibus non est disputandum ('there's no accounting for taste') serves up a tasty PSHCE lesson on tolerance on a plate. Even if, strictly interpreted, it would invalidate this blog.

The idiomatically correct translation of 'Me gusta' as 'I like' before long causes all sorts of confusion over subject and object pronouns. As regards comprehension, it can mostly be grasped intuitively; the difficulties arise when it's time for original composition or sentence construction. The literal translation, 'it pleases me', which can be taught alongside similar verbs such as 'interesar' and 'fascinar', will please the more structurally minded while scrambling the brains of others, requiring them to track backwards to check for singular and plural agreement much as they might use multiplication in maths to check division. Sometimes the Spanish formulation closely echoes the English - 'your attention to detail pleases me' - while at others it is amusingly quaint: 'the pizza pleases me greatly'. And the whole mental exercise provides a useful opportunity to raise awareness of the English preference for prepositional verb phrases: 'to be pleased/fascinated by', 'to be interested in', over which many native speakers now seem to have a very uncertain command.

When it comes to DISgust, on the other hand, the grammar of the two languages corresponds almost exactly. Things disgust me, just as 'me gustan/disgustan' en español. So why not approach the topic from this angle, using repugnance as your irresistible point of entry? Feelings of disgust are generally stronger than those of mere liking, so the resulting discussion is likely to have a more powerful hold over long-term memory.

I like X. Y disgusts ME. What does this syntactical inversion tell us about ourselves? In Spanish, the use of the object pronoun suggests something involuntary, akin to instinct and closer to a notional (although untenable) pre-linguistic state. My reaction is beyond my control: I am acted upon, and agency is transferred to the thing that disgusts, which is outside me. 'Liking', on the other hand, suggests a degree of choice and self-determination: I choose - at least to an extent - what to like and what to dislike. I might even choose to dominate and overcome my initial disgust. The grammar of English is more assertive, putting the self centre stage, and perhaps more political, insofar as it implies a semi-conscious decision to take sides.

The most satisfying language lessons, it could be argued, no matter the age of the pupil, both zoom in on some critical linguistic detail and zoom out to encompass philosophical reflection and the difference between cultures. Ideally they also involve the (already expert) teacher continuing to learn alongside her pupils, albeit at different levels of the game.

Talking about what you like and dislike is fundamental to social interaction and establishing relationships. But a more analytical approach will help mitigate against the risk of topic-based banality. 

In the meantime, I propose an energetic campaign to restore '#gust' to its rightful place in everyday English. 

Dr Heather Martin is a languages specialist, and assistant head (curriculum) at Kensington Prep School.