Communicating

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. 🙂

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. 🙂

Breaking Rules

One of my favorite novels is John Barth’s The End of The Road. In that novel Jake Horner — who suffers from “cosmopsis,” the inability to choose among alternatives — finds himself teaching English grammar at a Community College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. At one point a recalcitrant student in one of his classes objects to grammar rules and insists that it’s all hokum. A person can say anything he or she wants and it really doesn’t matter how you say it. This leads to a fascinating confrontation between the student and his teacher.

Jake engages the student in a dialogue in which he notes that what separates us from “savages” are the rules we follow, including grammar rules. “. . .once a set of rules for etiquette or grammar is established and generally accepted as the norm — meaning the ideal, not the average — then one is free to break them only if he is willing to be generally regarded as a savage or an illiterate.. . .You are free to break the rules, but not if you’re after intelligibility. If you do want intelligibility, then the only way to get ‘free’ of the rules is to master them so thoroughly that they’re second nature to you.. . .Who’s more free in America?. . . The man who rebels against all the laws or the man who follows them so automatically that he never even has to think about them?”

(Bill Watterson put the point somewhat differently in his “Calvin and Hobbes” Comic:)

Now despite the fact that we are now politically correct and eschew such terms as “savages,” there is a modicum of truth in Jake’s comments to his student. Our ability to use language has deteriorated to an astonishing degree in the past 50 years. In tests during the late 1950’s there was concern over the reduced vocabulary of supposedly “educated” students from some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities. Since that time, estimates reveal that vocabulary has fallen off by 72% among the students at those same schools. Much of this is due to the fact that foreign languages (especially Latin) are no longer taught to all college bound students. But there are also the related facts of excessive TV watching, increased use of electronic devices, and the decreasing number of books being read.

I blogged in March about the increasing tendency of students to tweet one another rather
than correspond with one another in complete sentences. English teachers around the country have complained in increasing numbers about the growing inability of their students to write a complete sentence. As I said in March, referring to an incident involving Rush Limbaugh and his chastisement of a young woman who testified before Congress about the use of contraceptives:

“The recent debacle surrounding Rush Limbaugh’s trashing of a young woman for having the gall to approach Democratic members of a Congressional committee and suggest that health insurance plans should fund contraceptives to help reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies is well documented. Less well documented is actress Patricia Heaton’s leaping to Limbaugh’s side in lashing out at the young law student. Both have apologized. While Heaton’s twitter-trashing was fairly intelligible, her apology was more typical, buried as it is in the usual twitterese:

‘re @SandraFluke Mea culpa Sandra! Wasn’t being respectful 2 u re my tweets as I hope people wd b w/me. Don’t like you being dissed -so sorry.'”

In a word, what we have here is a new language that may or may not express complete thoughts. We must bear in mind that our thinking depends on our ability to use words, whether we like it or not. And as our inability to use words increases along with our tendency to replace words with grunts, gestures, sentence fragments, and spacers such as “like,” and “you know” we must grudgingly admit that we are perhaps at the dawn of a new age of barbarism, if not savagery.

The solution, of course, is for parents to grab their kids from in front of the TV and spend more time with them telling them stories, reading to them and having them make up stories themselves. They should also resist the movement toward more electronic devices in the schools — especially in the early grades. The more the kids use language and hear others around them using it correctly the more likely that they will be better able to express themselves and order their thoughts as they grow older. That, it seems to me, is rather important.