Allow me to rant about the world of linguistics for a second. And then I’ll tell you why it matters.
by Loren A. Roberts (guru of multi-hyphenate media)
Something snapped in me this past week; I'm mad at modernity/post-modernity. Here’s how it happened:
STRIKE ONE: VARIETY!
I have been driving a lot, and, since I just got my car back from a big long repair job (another story), I hadn't put any of my own CDs into the car. I was stuck with the radio. And what did I hear? “More Variety! Less Talk! More of the music You want to hear! Keep it here for the Most Variety on your FM Dial!”
And then I heard “Move Like Jagger” for the fifth time in one day. (I kinda like the song, but stick with me...)
I don’t know what your definition of variety is, but Webster’s online dictionary lists as its first definition: the quality or state of having different forms or types. But I just heard the same song five times on the same radio station in the same day! Obviously, the announcer was lying to me about them having the most variety, right?
STRIKE TWO: ON SALE NOW!
I have been traveling more for work these days. Bummer thing about travel: your luggage gets tossed around like a football. Last time I lost a piece of luggage was while I was covering tsunami relief work in Sri Lanka in 2005 — it ripped right down the side, and the suitcase wasn’t going to make the trip home. I promptly found a street vendor in downtown Colombo, Sri Lanka, and bought a new suitcase. It was an okay suitcase — not name-brand or anything — and it worked well ... until last month. Returning from covering tsunami relief work (again with the tsunami relief!) in Japan this time, my Sri Lankan-bought suitcase encountered the baggage handlers at LAX. And the suitcase lost. (The entire wheel assembly was gone when the suitcase showed up on the luggage carousel.)
So I have another trip coming up, and my wife authorizes the expenditure to replace the suitcase. She shows me this ad for a Macy’s sale. “Lowest Prices Ever on Top Name-Brand Luggage! Half Off Everything, and Take an additional 10% Off During Our One-Day Sale!”
So I walk over to the Macy’s (conveniently located across the street from my office). And they did have a nice selection of new suitcases. Now put your math-class thinking caps on, because here’s where it gets good:
Here’s a new Samsonite suitcase, that retails for $360. Macy’s half-off would make it $180. Another 10% off that would make it $162. Now you’re thinking, “wow, that’s a great deal,” right? “I bet I'm not gonna find anywhere else that has this suitcase for a better price.”
I promptly found three other stores that had the exact same suitcase for $10 to $20 cheaper than Macy’s lowest sale price.
So what happened to Macy’s incredible sale? And, more importantly, how was I almost fooled into buying the higher-priced goods at Macy’s?
One word: LANGUAGE.
We are losing words, guys. When variety doesn’t mean variety anymore, when lowest prices ever doesn’t mean lowest prices ever, we have a problem. Why?
Language is what separates us from every other species on this planet.
Language is how we, as artists, tell a story. When all the words are gone, or worse, don’t mean what they should, we are in big trouble.
Because I am a storyteller I live by words. Perhaps music is a purer art form. It may be that when we communicate with life on another planet, it will be through music, not through language or words.
But I am a storyteller, and that involves language, for me the English language, that wonderfully rich, complex, and oftimes confusing tongue. When language is limited, I am thereby diminished, too.
In time of war language always dwindles, vocabulary is lost; and we live in a century of war. When I took my elder daughter’s tenth-grade vocabulary cards up to the school from which she had graduated, less than a decade after she had left, the present tenth-grade students knew almost none of them. It was far easier for my daughter to read Shakespeare in high school than it was for students coming along just a few years after her.
This diminution is worldwide. In Japan, after the Second World War, so many written characters were lost that it is difficult, if not impossible, for the present-day college student to read the works of the great classical masters. In the [former] USSR, even if Solzhenitsyn had been allowed to be read freely, it would not have been easy for the average student to read his novels, for again, after revolution and war, vocabulary fell away. In one of Solzhenitsyn’s books his hero spends hours at night reading the great Russian dictionary which came out in the late nineteenth century, and Solzhenitsyn himself draws on this work, and in his writing he is redeeming language, using the words of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, using the words of the people of the street, bringing langauge back to life as he writes.
So it has always been. Dante, writing in exile when dukedoms and principalities were embroiled in wars, was forging language as he wrote his great science-fiction fantasies. [L’Engle, Walking On Water, Shaw Books/Waterbrook Press, 1980.]
So. Where do we go from here? How do we reclaim language, even though we are still in a time of war? (...and I would argue the wartime is both political and cultural right now, so we’re fighting wars on multiple fronts.)
And I think the words that we are losing are not necessarily the ones we thing we are losing. There is a Compendium of Lost Words online; it’s fun to see the words that no one ever uses anymore. But what about the words that we are losing because their definitions are becoming meaningless? What does “variety” mean? “Sale”? How about “liberal” or “feminist” or “sex” or “love” or “respect”? Do we agree on the meanings of these words, or have they been diluted and cast aside by a culture at war?
If the meanings go out of all of the words, it will become very difficult to tell stories. Our job as artists will get harder and harder. It will become near impossible to make sense of the world, and we will become less of the human beings that we think we are.
So watch your language. Do not go gentle into that good night2. There are stories to be told, and those stories require us to not lay down and die while words get trampled.
Use your words. I don’t want to live in a world where all the meaning is gone.
1 I have four favorite authors, and they show my bias towards fantastic fiction: “the three L's: Lewis, L’Engle, and Le Guin” and JRR Tolkien. Their work share common threads of the juxtaposition of humanism and spirituality, alternative/ground-breaking understandings of theology, and the power of good over evil (in addition to being darn good storytellers and writers of some of the best fantastic fiction out there). I’m a big Joseph Campbell fan too. L’Engle’s “banned book” is A Wrinkle In Time, which some “conservative Christians” think promotes the occult and a glorification of the person of Satan. Hah. Go back and read the book again, ’cuz you obviously didn’t get it the first time.
2 Dylan Thomas’ beautiful poetic entreaty to fight death with all your might. I’m using it here to entreat you to fight the death of language. I’m much less concerned about mortality than I am about words...
LOREN A. ROBERTS produces films, videos and music, designs magazines and logos, plays and sings in a rock-and-roll tribute band, and is a student of what happens when science, the arts, technology, and culture collide. www.hearkencreative.com
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