I post here a piece I wrote many years ago and which seems to be even more relevant today as we swim in a sea of gibberish and tweets and the elections are about to begin. I have updated it a bit.
Once upon a time, long ago, after humans had freed themselves from the primeval ooze and struggled to stand upright, they gradually invented language in order to communicate with one another. Initially, it was through pictures and gestures, but eventually they developed an alphabet and put words together. All of this was in order to communicate their ideas and feelings to one another, to make clear what they had in mind.
It was thought for many years that language was the one thing that separated humans from other animal species. But then it was discovered by people like Wolfgang Köhler that chimpanzees could communicate with one another and it was later learned that they could even teach one another the language. Then we learned that other animal species also have communication skills and even something similar to language. This was about the time when humans were losing their own use of language. Coincidence? Probably. But in the event, humans discovered their vocabularies shrinking and their ability to grasp such things as compound sentences slipping away. It was about the time when they started playing with electronic gadgets designed to increase their ability to contact other people and, presumably, to communicate with them. Coincidence? Almost certainly.
But, it turns out, the idea is no longer to use language to communicate with one another. Language is now for self-expression. We use it to tell others how we feel or, at best, to order pizza. We discovered that we don’t need a rich vocabulary or complicated sentences. We can use images and gestures. Just like our ancestors. 😜
The problem is, of course, that language is necessary for thought and as language becomes impoverished so also does our ability to think. This is demonstrated, if we require a demonstration, by the alarming number of people who support Donald Trump. Obviously, these people have lost the ability to think. I haven’t been listening at doorways, but I would wager they can’t speak, either. The problem is that language was initiated in order to make it possible for us to communicate with one another. And this means that a fairly sophisticated vocabulary along with the rules of grammar and usage are also necessary if we are to tell each other what’s on our mind and find out what is going on in theirs. The point was wonderfully made by John Barth in his novel The End of The Road in which the hero, Jake Horner, is dealing with a reluctant student in his basic College English class. The student insists that because language came before grammar we don’t need grammar. After a lengthy Socratic exchange between Jake and the student, Horner concludes as follows:
“. . .if we want our sentences to be intelligible to very many people, we have to go along with the convention [the rules of grammar]. . . You’re free to break the rules, but not if you are after intelligibility. If you do want intelligibility, then [you must master the rules].”
But, it would appear that a great many of us are like the student in this exchange: we don’t want to obey the rules of grammar because ultimately we are not really interested in communicating, in intelligibility. Language is simply a device we employ to express ourselves. Period.
In a word, we as a species regress. And as we regress we are surrounded by a growing number of problems that require careful thought and imagination. This at a time when thought and imagination have become impoverished by “advances” in technology and the growing influence of the entertainment industry whose motto is: take it down to the lowest level in order to attract the largest audience. Educators have followed suit, lowering expectations and providing their students with electronic toys. Coincidence? Perhaps. But a bit unnerving none the less.
Thus we discover around us folks whose attention is directed at the toys in their hands — even when they are next to one another — and who find it difficult, if not impossible, to say what they mean or understand what others say to them,. But since language is no longer about communication, since it is now about self-expression, it really doesn’t matter. As long as others know that I am angry, hungry, or sad, that’s really all that matters. If they don’t understand what I am feeling so much the worse for them. It’s all about me. I don’t need language. 🙂
You address a significant topic — mutual intelligibility. It gets me thinking.
Suffice it to say that I have struggled with being intelligible my entire life. Upon reflection, I would say that the first thing that helped me on my way to being able to think, speak, and write with greater intelligibility was both learning to read and developing the habit of reading early in life. If any credit is due here it goes to my mother, who insisted upon both.
The second thing that helped me on the way toward intelligible expression was my teachers. There were enough teachers along the way who held their students accountable for the quality of their expression that it made a positive difference. By the time I got to college I could not only read widely, well, and quickly, I could also write sentences that were grammatically correct, generally free of usage errors, and even spelled properly. All thanks to my mother and my teachers.
The third thing that pushed me in the direction of intelligibility was attending Southwest Minnesota State College in 1967. There I encountered interesting and committed faculty who had high expectations of both themselves and their students (which are really the same thing, I think). It became clear to me that, though I could write a sentence correctly, I could not follow or develop an argument correctly. This I learned in philosophy classes at Southwest. Another big step down the road toward intelligibility – a road I did not even see before that time.
The fourth thing that carried me in the direction of intelligible expression was the experience of speaking in classrooms, committees, and professional conferences. The Latin phrase “docent ut discas” is apt here. There is nothing quite like trying to explain things to others publicly that will cause one to think before speaking and to choose one’s words carefully. Soon, both became habits of mind.
Lastly, my pursuit of intelligible expression was promoted by many tasks of writing, both big and small, throughout my career as a student and as a professional. This reflects not only intellectual craft but also accountability for one’s expression. The only “feeling” that matters when writing for an audience is the desire to avoid seeming utterly foolish.
I still pursue intelligibility of expression. I have a long way to go. Still, I am a long way from where I began, too. So, there’s that…
I often said to my students, “Do not write how you feel or write your opinion about the topic of the essays I assign — unless I ask you to do so. And of one thing you may be certain — I will never ask. Your opinions and feelings are none of my business. They are beyond my assessment. It is the clarity, coherence, and correctness of the arguments you write that are most certainly my business. Be sure to make it your business, as well.”
For most of my students, as it was for me, this was the hardest and most important lesson of all. Being held accountability for what you say and what you write is an important, but seemingly rare, experience. We even have national leaders (sic) who are not held to account for what they say, tweet, and do. The consequences of this are tearing us apart.
Intelligibility rests upon rules, to be sure, but it also rests upon accountability for one’s words. Thank you for giving me this lesson years ago.
Regards, respects, and best wishes,
“Being held accountable”, not “Being held accountability”. Groan…🙄
I caught that! Many thanks for this. You have obviously learned well. You write well and think cogently.
Hugh, I love the part where Homer notes if you want to be understood, you must be understandable. The best example is the Latin masses of the Catholic Church that were finally stopped in the 1960s. The Latin words were rituals, not communication. Communication is a two way street.
I don’t watch the president speak for three reasons – he is largely untruthful, he has to beat up on some foil, and he just repeats himself, often five or six times. He may be communicating with some folks, but I what I hear is nonsensical blathering.
I refuse to watch or listen to Trump speak.
This has less to do with the niceties of communication and more to do with my strong gag reflex.
I simply cannot abide the man.
I’m with you. It is not good for my failing health, furthermore.