In the beginning was the Word.
He entered my office for advice as a freshman advisee sporting nearly perfect SAT scores and an impeccable academic record—by all accounts a young man of considerable promise. During a 20-minute conversation about his academic future, however, he displayed a vocabulary that consisted mostly of two words: "cool" and "really." Almost 800 SAT points hitched to each word. To be fair, he could use them interchangeably as "really cool" or "cool ... really!" He could also use them singly, presumably for emphasis. When he became one of my students in a subsequent class I confirmed that my first impression of the young scholar was largely accurate and that his vocabulary, and presumably his mind, consisted predominantly of words and images derived from overexposure to television and the new jargon of computer-speak. He is no aberration, but an example of a larger problem, not of illiteracy but of diminished literacy in a culture that often sees little reason to use words carefully, however abundantly. Increasingly, student papers, from otherwise very good students, have whole paragraphs that sound like advertising copy. Whether students are talking or writing, a growing number have a tenuous grasp on a declining vocabulary. Excise "uh ... like ... uh" from virtually any teenage conversation, and the effect is like sticking a pin into a balloon.
In the past 50 years, by one reckoning, the working vocabulary of the average 14-year-old has declined from some 25,000 words to 10,000 words ("Harper's Index" 2000). This reflects not merely a decline in numbers of words but in the capacity to think. It also reflects a steep decline in the number of things that an adolescent needs to know and to name in order to get by in an increasingly homogenized and urbanized consumer society. This is a national tragedy virtually unnoticed in the media. It is no mere coincidence that in roughly the same half century the average person has learned to recognize more than 1,000 corporate logos but can recognize fewer than 10 plants and animals native to their locality (Hawken 1993, 214). That fact says a great deal about why the decline in working vocabulary has gone unnoticed—few are paying attention. The decline is surely not consistent across the full range of language but concentrates in those areas having to do with large issues such as philosophy, religion, public policy, and nature. On the other hand, vocabulary has probably increased in areas having to do with sex, violence, recreation, and consumption. As a result, we are losing the capacity to say what we really mean and ultimately to think about what we mean. We are losing the capacity for articulate intelligence about the things that matter most. "That sucks," for example, is a common way for budding young scholars to announce their displeasure about any number of issues that range across the full spectrum of human experience. But it can also be used to indicate a general displeasure with the entire cosmos. Whatever the target, it is the linguistic equivalent of using duct tape for holding disparate thoughts in rough proximity to some vague emotion of dislike.
The problem is not confined to teenagers or young adults. It is part of a national epidemic of incoherence evident in our public discourse, street talk, movies, television, and music. We have all heard popular music that consisted mostly of pre-Neanderthal grunts. We have witnessed "conversation" on TV talk shows that would have em barrassed retarded chimpanzees. We have listened to politicians of national reputation proudly mangle logic and language in less than a paragraph, although they can do it on a larger scale as well. However manifested, it is aided and abetted by academics, including whole departments specializing in various forms of postmodernism and the deconstruction of one thing or another. They propounded ideas that everything was relative, hence largely inconsequential, and that the use of language was an exercise in power, hence to be devalued. They taught, in other words, a pseudo-intellectual contempt for clarity, careful argument, and felicitous expression. Being scholars of their word, they also wrote without clarity, argument, and felicity. Remove half a dozen arcane words from any number of academic papers written in the past 10 years and the argument—whatever it was—evapo-rates. But the situation is not much better elsewhere in the academy where thought is often fenced in by disciplinary jargon. The fact is that educators have all too often been indifferent trustees of language. This explains, I think, why the academy has been a lame critic of what ails the world from the preoccupation with self to technology run amuck. We have been unable to speak out against the barbarism engulfing the larger culture because we are part of the process of bar-barization that begins with the devaluation of language.
The decline of language, noted by commentators such as H. L. Mencken, George Orwell, William Safire, and Edwin Newman, is nothing new. Language is always coming undone. Why? For one thing, it is always under assault by those who intend to control others by first seizing the words and metaphors by which people describe their world. The goal is to give partisan aims the appearance of inevitability by diminishing the sense of larger possibilities. In our time language is under assault by those whose purpose it is to sell one kind of quackery or another: economic, political, religious, or technological. It is under attack because the clarity and felicity of language (as distinct from its quantity) is devalued in an industrial-technological society. The clear and artful use of language is, in fact, threatening to that society. As a result we have highly distorted and atrophied conversations about ultimate meanings, ethics, public purposes, or the means by which we live. Since we cannot solve problems that we cannot name, one result of our misuse of language is a growing agenda of unsolved problems that cannot be adequately described in words and metaphors derived from our own creations such as machines and computers.
Second, language is in decline because it is being balkanized around the specialized vocabularies characteristic of an increasingly specialized society. The highly technical language of the expert is, of course, both bane and blessing. It is useful for describing fragments of the world, but not for describing how these fit into a coherent whole. But things work as whole systems, whether or not we can say it and whether or not we perceive it. And more than anything else, it is coherence our culture lacks, not specialized knowledge. Genetic engineering, for example, can be described as a technical matter in the language of molecular biology. But saying what the act of rearranging the genetic fabric of earth means requires an altogether different language and a mind-set that seeks to discover larger patterns. Similarly, the specialized language of economics does not begin to describe the state of our well-being, whatever it reveals about how much we may or may not possess. Regardless of these arguments, over and over the language of the specialist trumps that of the generalist—the specialist in whole things. The result is that the capacity to think carefully about ends, as distinct from means, has all but disappeared from our public and private conversations.
Third, language reflects the range and depth of our experience, but our experience of the world is being impoverished to the extent that it is rendered artificial and prepackaged. Most of us no longer have the experience of skilled physical work on farms or in forests. Consequently words and metaphors based on intimate knowledge of soils, plants, trees, animals, landscapes, and rivers have declined. "Cut off from this source," Wendell Berry writes, "language becomes a paltry work of conscious purpose, at the service and the mercy of expedient aims" (1983, 33). Our experience of an increasingly uniform and ugly world is being engineered and shrink-wrapped by recreation and software industries and pedaled back to us as "fun" or "information." We've become a nation of television watchers and Internet browsers, and it shows in the way we talk and what we talk about. More and more we speak as if we are voyeurs furtively peeking in on life, not active participants, moral agents, or engaged citizens.
Fourth, we are no longer held together, as we once were, by the reading of a common literature or by listening to great stories and so cannot draw on a common set of metaphors and images as we once did. Allusions to the Bible and great works of literature no longer resonate because they are simply unfamiliar to a growing number of people. This is so in part because the consensus about what is worth reading has come undone. But the debate about a worthy canon is hardly the whole story. The ability to read serious literature with seriousness is diminished by overexposure to television and computers that overdevelop the visual sense. The desire to read is jeopardized by the same forces that would make us a violent, shallow, hedonistic, and materialistic people. As a nation we risk coming undone because our language is coming undone and our language is coming undone because one by one we are being undone.
The problem of language is a global problem. Of the roughly 5,000 languages now spoken on earth, only 150 or so are expected to survive to the year 2100. Language everywhere is being whittled down to the dimensions of the global economy and homogenized to accord with the imperatives of the information age. This represents a huge loss of cultural information and a blurring of our capacity to understand the world and our place in it. And it represents a losing bet that a few people armed with the words, metaphors, and mindset characteristic of industry and technology that flourished destructively for a few decades can, in fact, manage the earth, a different, more complex, and longer-lived thing altogether.
Because we cannot think clearly about what we cannot say clearly, the first casualty of linguistic incoherence is our ability to think well about many things. This is a reciprocal process. Language, George Orwell once wrote, "becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts" (1981, 157). In our time the words and metaphors of the consumer economy are often a product of foolish thoughts as well as evidence of bad language. Under the onslaught of commercialization and technology, we are losing the sense of wholeness and time that is essential to a decent civilization. We are losing, in short, the capacity to articulate what is most important to us. And the new class of corporate chiefs, global managers, genetic engineers, and money speculators has no words with which to describe the fullness and beauty of life or to announce its role in the larger moral ecology. They have no metaphors by which they can say how we fit together in the community of life and so little idea beyond that of self-interest about why we ought to protect it. They have, in short, no language that will help humankind navigate through the most dangerous epoch in its history. On the contrary, they will do all in their power to reduce language to the level of utility, function, management, self-interest, and the short term. Evil begins not only with words used with malice; it can begin with words that merely diminish people, land, and life to some fragment that is less than whole and less than holy. The prospects for evil, I believe, will grow as those for language decline.
We have an affinity for language, and that capacity makes us human. When language is devalued, misused, or corrupted, so too are those who speak it and those who hear it. On the other hand, we are never better than when we use words clearly, eloquently, and civilly. Language does not merely reflect the relative clarity of mind; it can elevate thought and ennoble our behavior. Abraham Lincoln's words at Gettysburg in 1863, for example, gave meaning to the terrible sacrifices of the Civil War. Similarly, Winston Churchill's words moved an entire nation to do its duty in the dark hours of 1940. If we intend to protect and enhance our humanity, we must first decide to protect and enhance language and fight everything that undermines and cheapens it.
What does this mean in practical terms? How do we design language facility back into the culture? My first suggestion is to restore the habit of talking directly to each other—whatever the loss in economic efficiency. To that end I propose that we begin by smashing every device used to communicate in place of a real person, beginning with answering machines. Messages like "Your call is important to us" or "For more options, please press five, or if you would like to talk to a real person, please stay on the line" are the death rattle of a coherent culture. Hell, yes, I want to talk to a real person, and preferably one who is competent and courteous!
My second suggestion is to restore the habit of public reading. One of my very distinctive childhood memories was attending a public reading of Shakespeare by the British actor Charles Laughton. With no prop other than a book, he read with energy and passion for two hours and kept a large audience enthralled, including one eight-year-old boy. No movie was ever as memorable to me. Further, I propose that adults should turn off the television, disconnect the cable, undo the computer, and once again read good books aloud to their children. I know of no better or more pleasurable way to stimulate thinking, encourage a love of language, and facilitate the child's ability to form images.
Third, those who corrupt language ought to be held accountable for what they do—beginning with the advertising industry. In 1997 the advertising industry spent an estimated $187 billion to sell us an unconscionable amount of stuff, much of it useless, environmentally destructive, and deleterious to our health. They fuel the fires of consumerism that are consuming the earth and our children's future. They regard the public with utter contempt—as little more than a herd of sheep to be manipulated to buy anything at the highest possible cost and at any consequence. Dante would have consigned them to the lowest level of hell, only because there was no worse place to put them. We should too. Barring that excellent idea, we should insist that they abide by community standards of truthfulness in selling what they peddle, including full disclosure of what the products do to the environment and to those who use them.
Fourth, language, I believe, grows from the outside in, from the periphery to center. It is renewed in the vernacular where human intentions intersect particular places, circumstances, and by the everyday acts of authentic living and speaking. It is, by the same logic, corrupted by contrivance, pretense, and fakery. The center where power and wealth work by contrivance, pretense, and fakery does not create language so much as exploit it. To facilitate control, it would make our language as uniform and dull as the interstate highway system. Given its way, we would have only one newspaper, a super-USA Today. Our thoughts and words would mirror those popular in Washington, New York, Boston, or Los Angeles. From the perspective of the center, the merger of ABC and Disney is okay because it can see no difference between entertainment and news. To preserve the vernacular places where language grows, we need to protect the independence of local newspapers and local radio stations. We need to protect local culture in all of its forms from domination by national media, markets, and power. Understanding that cultural diversity and biological diversity are different faces of the same coin, we must protect those parts of our culture where memory, tradition, and devotion to place still exist.
Finally, because language is the only currency wherever men and women pursue truth, there should be no higher priority for schools, colleges, and universities than to defend the integrity and clarity of language in every way possible. We must instill in our students an appreciation for language, literature, and words well crafted and used to good ends. As teachers we should insist on good writing. We should assign books and readings that are well written. We should restore rhetoric, the ability to speak clearly and well, to the liberal arts curriculum. Our own speaking and writing ought to demonstrate clarity and truthfulness. And we, too, should be held accountable for what we say.
In terms of sheer volume of words, factoids, and data of all kinds, this is surely an information age. But in terms of understanding, wisdom, spiritual clarity, and civility, we have entered a darker age. We are drowning in a sea of words with nary a drop to drink. We are in the process of committing what C. S. Lewis once called "verbicide" (Aeschliman 1983, 5). The volume of words in our time is inversely related to our capacity to use them well and to think clearly about what they mean. It is no wonder that during a dreary century of gulags, genocide, global wars, and horrible weapons, our use of language was dominated by propaganda and advertising and controlled by language technicians. "We have a sense of evil," Susan Sontag has said, but we no longer have "the religious or philosophical language to talk intelligently about evil" (Miller 1998, 55). That being so for the twentieth century, what will be said at the end of the twenty-first century, when the stark realities of climatic change and biotic impoverishment will become fully apparent? Can we summon the clarity of mind to speak the words necessary to cause us to do what in hindsight will merely appear to have been obvious all along?
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