Protecting Language

It is unfortunate that language tends to be polluted as time goes on. I’d like to discuss this, as well as the consequences. But first, let’s start with some meandering….

Once upon a time, people used words like “arduous” and “adder”. While arduous is still around, most people will have to look up “adder” in a dictionary. I certainly had to. Some words become out-of-date for no other reason other than they are unpopular. I speculate this may tend to happen with close synonyms of the same length where one may be a little more difficult or unpleasant to say, but who knows.

On the other hand, some words have their meanings changed over time. Do you know what “uncanny” means? According to the dictionary, “uncanny” means “exciting wonder or fear; so keen or perceptive as to seem supernatural”. Though notably, in many cases, it seems to mean more along the lines of an unpleasant but expected coincidence. Murphy’s Law comes to mind. To say, “He has uncanny timing” or “it is uncanny how it always rains on our parade” implies something (sometimes a problem) just won’t go away when really need it to. Ironically, “canny”, according to the dictionary, means “frugal; thrifty; 2. pleasant; attractive;” which is totally unrelated.

Another word of interest is “uncouth”. These days, uncouth means to be “unkept”, such as not wearing one’s apparel appropriately (or wearing the appropriate apparel), or simply not being socially acceptable. It has come to mean the opposite of “suave”. Interestingly enough, according to etymology, the original meaning of the word is “foreign”, and the word “couth” meant “familiar”. The people using the word “couth” at the time must have associated something negative with foreigners. Leave it to humans to be condescending and consequently pollute their own words. We are the beneficiaries of the pollution of our language. Fortunately, other words have replaced the words we have lost. Unfortunately, many books have since been lost to such pollution.

The words that tend to be easily polluted are short ones – words that people can toss around quickly and thus get an emotional response. Three- or four-letter words are the easiest victims. It is easier and more insulting to call someone a “cadd” than it is to call them “impolite” (which means the same thing). If you want to describe someone as what they really are, the best words are eight-letters long. But that is a mouthful, and, more than that, it is difficult to think of such words when you don’t use them frequently.

That said, there is more pollution than simply cussing. Obviously, some words were made for the sole purpose of evoking an emotional response. Other words have come to mean negative things on the basis of the connotations associated with them. For example, an ass is a donkey, not the blob of skin on a human abdomen, much less an irritating person. Not too long ago, however, I read in the Holy Bible that Esau would be (direct quote): “an ass of a man”. Even if you translate it back into the Hebrew, you still get “donkey”, which goes to show that donkeys, even back then, have always been recognized to be irritating animals to work with.

In his book , 1980 (?), Orwell writes about some characters trying to translate the U.S. Constitution into “new-speak”, the new language of society, and they are having trouble. As they learn, “newspeak” contains no words that mean “freedom” or “liberty”. Those are concepts banned from the mentality, and the overseeing power ensures it by taking those words out of the language.

Control how people speak, and you can control what people talk about. Well… for a time. As it turns out, people tend to adopt words from other languages. But even then, old literature is lost, and it takes quite some time for people to learn the new words that replace the ones lost, thereby making the preservation of truth very difficult.

That said, this is why words must be preserved: so that truth is preserved.

Unfortunately, if language continues to be polluted, it will become increasingly difficult to speak about things without referencing something ugly and thereby having the mind polluted. For example, if I say “affair”, you should be thinking “business”, be it personal or public. To many people, however, “affair” tends to be short for “sexual affair”, which in turn, tends to be short for “adulterous sexual affair”. But no one but bold cadds like me are going to say the full phrase. A duck is a duck is a duck, not, “That bird that can swim that I can’t describe without offending someone”.

A more common pollution, which you may not have even realized, is the racial terms. I have never met a black person. I have met many brown, even dark brown people, but none of them were black. Similarly, I have never met a white person. That would be rather creepy. But in effort to distinguish and diminish the value of other people, certain people came along and started labeling people using polar opposite words on the premise that the melanin in your skin has something to do with the dignity that God gave you as a human, much less your intelligence. By continuing to prolong the usage of those phrases, we allow polarizing to continue at the same magnitude. These days, of course, people use it to get health benefits and free handouts from the government, and unfortunately, some subcultures perpetuate the mentality. But if everyone had to communicate online with no pictures, there would be many surprises when people finally did meet.

Another pollution is that of religious words. “Jesus” and “Christ” are not cuss words. They refer to a historical man who walked the face of the earth whether you believe that guy was God or not. Even outside of the sphere of pop culture, the religious communities themselves have a kind of internal pollution going on. Ask a “man of faith” to describe to you what “faith” means. He will undoubtedly give you some convoluted description of some ideal he hears preached every Sunday, and that description will, no doubt, change next year when he hears a better definition. Ask a non-religious military man what faith means, and he may give you a very straightforward answer: loyalty. Loyalty isn’t normally what comes to mind for the laity, although it may be a consequence. It is fine to have personal definitions of words – we all have them – it is not fine to have ambiguous definitions of words, or definitions that cannot be translated into real ideas.

Admittedly, we all have our own personal definitions of words. Your mind hears some sounds as a child (or adult), you ponder them in light of your experiences, and you attach a meaning to it based on how you have seen it used. It may have never occurred to you that your words mean something different to someone else. I may speak “English”, but I don’t say “boot” for the trunk of a car. And even my idea of a “boot” is not necessarily exactly the same as what another person calls a boot. One word may mean something completely different for people who speak the same language or a different one! Croissant, for instance, is a French word for certain kinds of bread, but in English, it means only one kind of bread roll.

All that said, what we say is generally close enough in meaning for us to communicate some idea. When I say “ball”, you should think of the same thing I do – a sphere, something macro-scale but small enough that a child could play with it. It should be hard to mess up what “ball” means, or so I’m inclined to believe (at the moment), unless you are a pervert. Since having similar ideas come to our minds is important for communication, it should be important to us that we preserve the meanings of our words. In so doing, we will be able to continue to communicate effectively.

Inasmuch as Americans may not like the French, the French are better at language (and I don’t mean just because the French also speak English, which they do). The French recognize the importance of the preservation of their tongue, and their government has set up a bureau devoted specifically to the preservation of the French language. That said, French will be around longer than English, or at least the English that you and I know.

One day, some of you reading this won’t be able to speak your mind because, before you say what you want to say, you will suddenly realize there is a negative connotation attached to a phrase or clause you intend to express. Fear indeed, for if this happens to you, then you are not doing your part to protect speak. You should be able to speak your mind without worrying about connotations. A connotation is something other people attach, not something that is expressed by you unless you mean to express it.

Defense of language requires that we insist on using words according to their actual meanings, the meanings we were raised with, the meanings that English speakers gave them before they were polluted, not the polluted meanings other people attach to them. Yes, it is too late to revive words like “uncoethe” (and simply better to say “unfamiliar”), but it is not too late to protect many, many other words being used today. You can contribute today by simply writing on your blog using English, polite English, clean English, informative English. By associating good ideas and the right ideas with words, we can worry less about offending people and more about simply not being creative. And that, my friends, is a minor concern.

One last thing I almost forget to mention, in reasoning why we need to defend language, is culture. Sometimes the beauty of a culture is expressed in its language. As I’ve learned about other cultures and other people, I take interest in their language, and I often find it disappointing when they have too many loan words. Some loan words are understandable, especially when there was never a word for a particular concept to begin with. Others are adopted for business, and still more are adopted because “they’re cool”. (And yes, I still recall the days when “cool” meant slightly cold, not “awesome”.) In any case, the more that are brought in, the less special the language becomes. Furthermore, contrary to the notion that it moves people towards speaking the same language, it does something else: It creates duplicates of words that end up taking on slightly different sounds and different meanings, resulting in what you might call language subsets of adopted words. “Engrish”, for example, is the Japanese subset of English adopted words, all of which sound very little like the original words and not all of which have the same meanings. e.g. “pah-sah-cone” ( パソコン ) is short for “personal computer”, but you’d never recognize that unless you studied the language or someone pointed it out to you. A friend of mine was telling me about Spanish. In only a few years, he said he learned to speak somewhere around five dialects of Spanish, and he doesn’t know which ones. There are Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Brazilians, and so on, and many have adopted each other’s words as well as English. Can you imagine learning five words for “truck” and not knowing if the next person you speak to will know any of them? So much for global language unification, no?

As a comment, I realize it is tempting to incorporate words of other languages into your own. On the other hand, I find that people(myself included) are more pleased when they know the person listening to them understands them. It is one less thing to be irritated about.

Another comment about religious texts (and philosophy ones for that matter): Someone was complaining to me about how difficult such texts were to read. The authors had a tendency to use big words for very simple ideas. Being a religious philosopher myself, I can tell you there are a few key reasons for doing this. First, big words have a precise meaning. Since they aren’t short, they aren’t easy to abuse, and thus their meaning doesn’t tend to change over time very much, just so long as they remain in the dictionary. And, of course, other nerds who love big words will scan their dictionaries and reuse those words, thus keeping them around. Second, big words make sentences less ambiguous. That might sound odd at first, but consider the following sentence: “The piece that should not be broken because there is nothing to put in its place was lost.” I could just as easily say, “The irreplaceable piece was lost.” This is only a simple example, but you should get the idea. I can’t say this is true for all big words, but if you think so, you’re welcome to floccinaucinihilipilificate my opinion.

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About chronologicaldot

Just a Christ-centered, train-loving, computer geek.
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