24 March 2009

Language Alive

When i posted my first blog, i wasn't expecting to get much response. At least, i wasn't anticipating an interesting, but short, conversation to break out in the comments. They bring up some good questions, as well as some talking points.

Matthew asked how i think language has weakened. This blog is a response to that question.

I feel that the danger we are facing with the breakdown of language isn't so much grammatical. Sure, there is danger in that, simply because the entire purpose of grammar is to enable clear communication. If our grammar if faulty or broken, we cannot effectively communicate with one another. A sentence that is read easily with a properly placed comma becomes a puzzle without one, and who's to say the reader will answer the puzzle correctly.

But what i was really talking about is the loss of imagination in language. One of my teachers at Sac State talked about two different kinds of writers. He said the majority of writers were used by language; that is to say, when they wrote, what they wanted to say was limited by their language because they could not effectively wield it. Then there were writers like Joyce who used language. They were the ones who were able to reimagine language, to not just breathe life into it in a way that allowed them to say exactly what they wanted, but they breathed life into it for the rest of us.

See, language, like the rest of us, changes with time. In one of my favorite books, Walking on Water, Madeleine L'Engle says, 'Language is a living thing; it does not stay the same; it is hard for me to read the language of Piers Plowman, for instance, so radical have the changes been. But language is its own creature. It evolves on its own. It follows the language of its great artists, such as Chaucer.'

Someone could argue that we have artists today who are reimagining language, breathing life into it yet again. They could toss out names like Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, or Thomas Pynchon. They could easily be right. But at the rate we are assaulted with unimaginative language--in everything from television sitcoms to billboard advertisements to text messages--we need all the help we can get. We need more Shakespeares.

By some counts, Shakespeare introduced over 1700 words into the English language. If the Oxford English Dictionary is any reckon, that number can be increased to over 2000. (That's the number of entries that have his work listed as the oldest source.) Language should change with the people, but that change should be driven by good art.

Like all things, left to itself, language falls apart. It ages with time and entropy pulls it apart. Old and rusty clichés become normal, littering the floor of our collective consciousness so that those ideas that once seemed new and novel and helped us see the world in a bright and wonderful way have lost all meaning. We still say 'foot of the hill' but we no longer see the hill as a giant with feet and a head (crown); we see a hill with a base we call a foot.

Since it takes the artists to push language to new territory, to new imagination, everyone else is off the hook, right? Not quite. If Joyce had never been read, and talked about, and grappled with, if Shakespeare had been put on a shelf and forgotten, or never again performed after his death, language would still be floundering. It is up to everyone who speaks the language to continue to grapple with it. The artist is the source, but everybody is the conduit. We, each and every one of us, are part of the solution, part of the reimagination, part of the growth of language.


  1. ah the privilege of asking the questions... :-) So, then, how do we grapple with it? I like these musings. They very much hit on things that interest me but that I don't really "work on" myself per se. How can I be more imaginative, how can I "do things" with language, especially in a field like theology or anthropology where there are certain sorts of expectations that measure when one is "actually doing" the kind of work that "theology is" or "anthropology is" etc? Where is the entry point for reinvigorating the discourse?

    Shameless plug: check out my own blog at http://anti-theses.blogspot.com/ Also fairly new, and I don't post more than once a week or so. On a variety of topics.

  2. No need to shamelessly plus. I'd already visited previously. :)

    As for grappling, i don't think i can tell you exactly how you can work out the reimagination of language in your own field. I think, in many ways, this is like practicing your faith: you and i can both follow Jesus in different ways based on our vocations. (That's not to say there are many ways to get to God, but that based on who we are as individuals, God meets us at different places and takes us on different journeys.)

    What i can do is tell you how i attempt to work this out, and you can attempt to somehow fit that into your way of life.

    I try to avoid using old words that don't hold meaning any more. Like when praying, i don't ask for a "hedge of protection" around people. Or how i try not to call myself a Christian, and instead refer to myself as one who follows Jesus. Also, when people use dead language themselves, i attempt to look past it, or to ask them to clarify what they mean so i can better understand.

    Remember, the prophets were some of the first people to use imaginative language and reinvigorate life into things. As a theologian, you follow, in some way, in their footsteps.

  3. It amazes me how many people use words and phrases that they use only because the context seems to fit with whatever experience they have hearing it in the past. There is a guy that I work with who excuses a lot of what he says by saying that he was just being "facetious". It reminds me of Viscinni in 'The Princess Bride' with "inconceivalbe". "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

    Older phrases seem to elude many people too. I know a hairdresser that calls it a "Catch twenty" instead of the proper "Catch twenty-two" and even after a bit of research I still don't know if it's "bold faced lie" or "bald faced lie". There are so many other examples that I can't even think of right now, but it's definitely something I've taken notice of that makes me try to be more intentional with my own speech.