Just Words

One of my favorite comics recently ran a strip on the topic of a funeral for the word “said.” It’s a word (they insisted) we no longer use and we can thus have a formal ceremony acknowledging its passing. We have thrown it away and now we hear: “I’m like,” and “She goes,” then “he goes,” and Fred’s all like”…. you get the picture.

Another word that seems to have passed away is the word “take.” We used to take things there and bring them here. Now we bring things everywhere. Lazy folks we are. We also find ourselves  “laying around” instead of “lying around.” We forget that “lay” is a transitive verb requiring an object. We lay something or someone, but if I were laying around I would expect to see an egg after I got up — or perhaps a I am a slut! We also can’t tell when to say “I” or “me.” Folks who like to pass themselves off as educated opt for the former in almost all cases so we get things like “It is all the same to Sally and I.” We know this is wrong since if we forgot all about Sally we would get something like “It’s all the same to I.” We know that can’t be right.

But one of the really interesting things is the way we use the word “up” at the end of so many phrases. We say “listen up!” or we say “button up,” or “zip up,” or “shut up,” “heads up,” “back up,” “lock up,” “wake up,” “wait up,” the list goes on. And why? It doesn’t help the meaning any.  Oh yes, there’s another little word that creeps in uninvited from time to time as when we say “It’s not that big of a deal,” when we mean to say “It’s not that big a deal.” The “of” really doesn’t belong. It’s just a waste of words when we could use them wisely elsewhere — as in the case of “take” or “lie.”

And there is another little word that is in danger of disappearing — if the folks at Weather Channel have their way. That’s the word “in.” They simply don’t seem to need it even though they say things like “the weather into Chicago is rather warm today.” I always thought “into” suggested movement, but they seem to think “into” works perfectly well wherever you want to use it, though it makes me a bit nauseated when I hear those “experts” saying it (not nauseous as some would have it. The latter is an adjective and describes such things as odors and sights; the former is an adverb and works well to describe feelings. Sheldon Cooper pointed that out to his friends on “The Big Bang” several years ago).

My problem is that I hang out with a good friend who teaches English to undergraduates. We tend to cry in our G&Ts about the sorry state of language in this country (not to mention politics). But, these are just words and I am being a pedant — knowing that no one likes a pedant. Sorry. Its tiresome, though, reading and writing about Donald Trump so much  — who is verbally challenged, to say the least, and it makes me feel a bit nauseated to think of him.

In the end, however, we do need words to communicate and if everyone is playing a different language game it makes communication impossible. This would be a serious problem if people were listening to one another, but since that doesn’t seem to be happening much any more perhaps I am simply spitting into the wind ….. again.

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Language

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? Perhaps. 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? Perhaps.

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. 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 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. 🙂

The Civilization of the Dialogue

This post is about conversation (or the lack of it): the gentle art of conversation in which folks actually listen to one another and, attempting to keep an open mind, seek to rethink issues no matter how deeply they feel about them. In a word, it is about the “civilization of the dialogue,” a phrase that arose from a discussion at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, California in 1968 focusing on the place of civil discourse in a democracy, a place that everyone involved agreed is central. Of chief interest in that discussion was the publication of several papers — one of which was written by a Senior Fellow, John Wilkinson, a man of considerable sagacity, a wordsmith, and master of the art of dialogue himself. The Center was known for its discussions of public issues, many of them heated, but all deserving of serious attention and almost always productive of insights into the condition of the nation at that time.

It is no secret that the art of conversation has been lost. It has been replaced by the loud voices of two or more advocates of differing points of view whose minds are closed like steel traps and who are simply concerned to have the listener shut up and agree. I use the term “listener” loosely, since the art of listening has been lost as well. Assuredly, television is one of the main causes of this condition, since it features, day in and day out, the shouting and interrupting voices of “talking heads” who hold forth on issues they may or may not know anything about, from sports to politics to feminine hygiene. I would also fault the lecture system in our colleges and universities which fail to instill what Walter Lippmann referred to as “vital intellectual habits” — such as “the ability to follow an argument, grasp the point of view of another, expand the boundaries of understanding, debate the alternatives that might be pursued” — all essential elements of the civilization of the dialogue. College classes must be small enough to encourage all to participate, not just the lecturer.

And one must also consider the eradication of the Fairness Doctrine during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, a policy passed in 1949 that was designed to guarantee equal time to both sides of complex (usually political) issues in the public media.  With the elimination of this Doctrine the public path was clear for louder and less civil voices in the expression of conflicting points of view. Indeed, there no longer needed to be opposing points of view at all: television producers and newspaper editors could simply present one side of an issue and do so again and again — witness Fox “News.” Preaching to the choir replaced genuine dialogue and any effort to grasp both sides of complex issues. But even before the Fairness Doctrine bit the dust, there were clear signs that the art of conversation, the civilization of the dialogue, was in serious trouble — as was our democratic system. To quote John Wilkinson’s  occasional paper printed in the Center Magazine in December 1968:

“The American republic is running on the momentum given it by a galaxy of political virtuosos nearly two centuries ago. It is vain to rail against any one thing or any one group of persons as the cause of our loss of political momentum.. . . We need not believe that there has been some conspiracy. It is tempting but not necessary to suppose that our oligarchs meet secretly, swearing to do everything in their power to harm the people. The effect is the same as if they had. If democracy is the civilization of the dialogue; if, as Scott Buchanan held, ‘persuasion is the life of politics’; if, as Robert Hutchins has written, ‘With an educational system that does not educate and a system of mass communications that does not communicate, we have become incapable of the discussion of which political issues are determined,’ then it is easy to see why the self-styled political elite must be a cacistocracy when not a single one of them could bring forth a clear and distinct idea if he had lived as long and written as much as Varro himself.”

Aside from the fact that I had to look up the word “cacistocracy” to discover it meant rule by the worst and most ignorant elements, I found this passage particularly thought-provoking. Wilkinson is very concerned that the life is going out of our political body because conversation has forsaken us, we have lost the ability to express ourselves clearly, and very few of us are willing to listen to what the other has to say. And this “we,” of course, includes our  so-called “leaders.” Indeed, in his paper Wilkinson notes that before coming to the Center he had taught at six different universities (all of them so-called “prestige” universities). During that time he tested the vocabularies of his students and found to his dismay that

“More than ninety percent of the students proved, as Freshmen, to have a usable, active vocabulary of about eight hundred words. They could passively understand a further five hundred words in something vaguely resembling their proper meaning. Another fifteen hundred or so words lay in such a penumbra of understanding or misunderstanding that more could hardly be averred than that they remembered having heard them before. Beyond that, Stygian darkness.”

This was before texting and the onslaught of electronic toys, and is sobering indeed — especially in light of the fact that Panbanisha, the chimpanzee, is said to have a vocabulary of 3000 words! But in any case, whether or not one is in sympathy with Wilkinson, or believes that his vocabulary tests prove much outside those six institutions, I can attest that in my more than forty years of teaching at the college level my students increasingly exhibited the same inability to grasp meanings and write and speak clearly that was the case with Wilkinson’s students. They were “verbally challenged” and, as a consequence (since we think in words), their thoughts were frequently jumbled and incoherent. Thus we have in our time not only the reduction of genuine dialogue to a shouting match where the goal is simply to speak louder than one another, but we also have growing numbers of people who cannot express themselves coherently even if they have something important to say. And this in a democracy where dialogue is central to its survival.

In The Aftermath

Welcome to the age of hyperbole where an increasingly tongue-tied population attempts to describe what is going on around them and cannot “find the words” without using superlatives or clichés.  This happens daily but was nowhere more evident than in the recent horrific events in Boston where 3 people were killed and more than 170 injured in two bomb explosions. Interviewers asked dumb questions of eye-witnesses who could only pause and say “it was tragic; it was huge, I can’t explain it.” We have come to the point where the word “tragedy” simply leaps to the tongue whenever something terrible happens. The Greeks, who invented the word, distinguished it from “pathos” which is mere sadness, even extraordinary sadness; they reserved the word “tragedy” for those terrible, and terrifying, events in which a noble person brings his world down around his ears through his own blindness and stupidity. But that has changed and only a pedant would insist that we reserve the word for Greek tragedies. No other word seems to suffice. The term has legitimately come to mean any unexpected event in which innocent people are hurt or killed — though we use it even more loosely than this, of course, when we describe the ACL tear the running back suffers in a vicious tackle as “tragic.”

In any event, it is certainly the case that the bomb explosions in Boston recently were terribly gut-wrenching, whether we want to call the event “tragic” or not. And at times it is hard to find the words to express our grief and outrage. But if we do insist on calling the death of three people and the injury of more than 170 others, a tragedy, then we must agree to use the term to apply to the death of men, women, and children in the Middle East where as many as 880 innocent people, including 176 children, have been killed in drone strikes that have taken an estimated 3,325 lives only 2% of whom were the militant leaders who were targeted. These are estimates, of course, and they probably err on the low side. The Obama administration is not forthcoming about the effects of the drone strikes and this in itself is unsettling. We are certainly not informed about these figures on a daily basis, nor shown film or pictures of the carnage, as we were (and still are) on TV following the explosions in Boston. Indeed, the photo here is a rare one showing the aftermath of a drone strike in Pakistan that involved a number of civilian deaths, including this child.

Child killed in drone attack

Child Killed In Drone Attack

But we must remember that we are the ones responsible for those deaths and that destruction in the Middle East which is many times greater than what happened in Boston. So while we pray for those who suffered or died in the aftermath of the bombings in Boston, we should take a moment to pray for those innocent people who are dying on a regular basis in crowded cities on the other side of the earth as a result of decisions made by our government. They, too, suffer. And their loses are as meaningful to them as ours are to us.

We may find it hard to find the right words to express our feelings and describe what is going on around us, but whatever those words are we should make sure we acknowledge that they apply to other people as well as to us.  No one who engages in these sorts of attacks on other human beings is in the right. And if we are convinced that those who planted the bombs in Boston are evil people who should be punished, it raises serious questions about the culpability of this nation as it prances about on the world stage flexing its muscles. We have become an increasingly bellicose and arrogant country of late and while it hurts to say so, there are those around the world who might insist we have this sort of thing coming.