I am struck by the evisceration of language in our contemporary culture, and wonder about its implications. We humans can communicate by many means – by touch, by expressions, by giving — even by our mere presence in situations where we would be more comfortable elsewhere, such as when sharing grief or loss with another. But our primary means of communication is by language.
In Genesis we learn of Babel, where man’s great hubris was disrupted by the confusion of tongues. Anyone who has traveled to another country and culture has experienced the discomfort of being in a strange environment without the comfort of clear communication. Yet far more insidious is the dissolution of the power of words within a culture, with a nominally common tongue.
One such example is the overloading of adjectives. In object-oriented software development, we talk of overloading a software object’s functionality, i.e., giving a derivative object more capabilities than the parent while using the same name. In language, the effect is the opposite: words are stripped of their original meaning, lessened by hyperbolic use. Consider the contemporary use of the word “awesome.” Derived from the Greek achos, meaning pain, it confers an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder inspired by authority, the sacred, or the sublime. It implies the experience of being in the presence of someone or something far greater than oneself. In modern culture, it has become an adjective for virtually everything even mildly pleasing. Almost anything can be “awesome”–clothes, parties, cars, pleasant situations. But if everything is awesome, then nothing is awesome. The language has been robbed of the ability of describing those things which truly inspire awe, which remind us that there are things far greater than ourselves. If we can no longer speak of awe, then we forget there are things which inspire and deserve our awe.
Another example is the term-swap, common in politically correct speech. My office nurse recently attended a conference on sexual dysfunction and counseling, taught by a specialist from San Francisco. He stated that in his clinic, you no longer ask if people are married, but whether they are “partnered”. You no longer inquire whether people are having sex, but ask whether they are “body-fluid bonded”. This is an attempt to influence thought by transforming speech. “Married” carries the connotation — derived from centuries of common use and consensus of meaning — of two people, man and woman, committed to one another in a contractual relationship, ideally for life, for better or worse. “Partnered” means any two people sharing a roof at this moment in time, here today and gone tomorrow, with commitment optional. Whatever your opinion on gay marriage, surely these two situations have different personal implications for those involved, and unequal impact on society as a whole. But “partnered” is a great leveler, making the lesser equal to the greater. And “body-fluid bonded”? Not only is term-swapping an attempt to remove the influence of higher principles on behavior, but it is invariably cumbersome, lacking in rhythm and impact, and downright ugly. Language is like music, having a rhythm and power of its own. Politically-correct term-swapping is the electronic organ of language – playing all the right notes, but abrasive and irritating to the ear. Even course street-slang is preferable: “Are you two f***ing?”, while offensive, is a slap in the face, while “Are you fluid-bonded?” is like lukewarm decaffeinated coffee.
Redefinition is another land mine in the field of language, especially problematic in discussions of religion and belief systems. But time is short, so more on that at another time…