Published: Fall 2007 in Feature Story

Care of the Word

I was talking recently about stewardship of global resources with a young man who is hoping to make a career in environmental law. We considered the fate of water, soil, animal and plant species, and food systems. In the wake of that invigorating conversation I found myself musing on the similar problems that beset another precious shared resource: words. Like any other life-sustaining resource, language can be depleted, polluted, contaminated, eroded, and filled with artificial stimulants. Like any other resource, it needs the protection of those who recognize its value and commit themselves to good stewardship.

Caring for language is a moral issue. Caring for one another is not entirely separable from caring for words. Words are entrusted to us as equipment for our life together, to help us survive, guide, and nourish one another. We need to take the metaphor of nourishment seriously in choosing what we “feed on” in our hearts, and how to make our conversation life-giving. A large, almost sacramental, sense of what words do can be found in early English usage where “conversation” appears to have been a term that included and implied much more than it does now: to converse was to foster community, to commune with, to dwell in a place with others. Conversation was understood to be a life-sustaining practice, a blessing, and a craft to be cultivated for the common good. A quaint poem by Edward Taylor offers some sense of this large notion of conversation: developing the image of the self as God’s “spinning wheel,” he prays, “and make my Soule thy holy Spoole to bee. My conversation make to be thy Reele.” (Taylor, 343) The business of guiding rough strands pulled from the gathered wool gently into the grooves where they may become fine thread suggests a rich idea of conversation as right, skillful, careful, economical use of what God and nature have provided for our use and protection.

To call upon another analogy, if language is to retain its power to nourish and sustain our common life, we have to care for it in the way good farmers care for the life of the soil, knowing nothing worth eating can be grown in soil that has been used up, overfertilized, or exposed, infested with toxic chemicals. The comparison is pertinent, timely, and precise, and urgent.

Not that the state of language is a matter for despair: there is much to celebrate in our verbal environment: poets are featured on public radio; dozens of versions of the English Bible are in print; Garrison Keillor is still telling stories and “pretty good jokes”; bilingual poets are stretching and enriching public discourse; Billy Collins and Toni Morrison are very likely at their keyboards even as we speak. Libraries offer programs for preschoolers, bookstores still stock Shakespeare, and every summer there’s a theater festival somewhere nearby. PBS and Pacifica radio still feature articulate analysts. The sheer availability of words, written, spoken, and sung, is historically unprecedented.

But as venues for the spoken and written word abound, so do the varieties of language abuse: propaganda, imprecision, clichés and cant. Warnings about the consequences of language abuse have been issued before. George Orwell in 1946 and George Steiner in 1959 lamented the way language, co-opted and twisted to serve corporate, commercial, and political agendas, could lose its resiliency, utility, and beauty. Their arguments are still widely cited. Orwell claims, for instance, “[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.” (Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 157)

This description, like Orwell’s ominous vision of “newspeak” as part of a program of mind control in “1984,” may have an unsettling ring of familiarity. In a similar vein, but rather more bleakly, George Steiner reflects on what actually happened to the German language under the Third Reich. “The language was infected not only with . . . great bestialities. It was called upon to enforce innumerable falsehoods, to persuade the Germans that the war was just and everywhere victorious. As defeat closed in . . . the lies thickened to a constant snowdrift. . . . ”

He goes on to comment, “Languages have great reserves of life. They can absorb masses of hysteria, illiteracy, and cheapness . . . . But there comes a breaking point. Use a language to conceive, organize, and justify Belsen; use it to make out specifications for gas ovens; use it to dehumanize man during 12 years of calculated bestiality. Something will happen to it. . . . Something of the lies and sadism will settle in the marrow of the language. Imperceptibly at first, like the poisons of radiation sifting silently into the bone. But the cancer will begin, and the deep-set destruction. The language will no longer grow and freshen. It will no longer perform, quite as well as it used to, its two principal functions: the conveyance of humane order which we call law, and the communication of the quick of the human spirit which we call grace.” (Steiner, “Language and Silence,” 100-101)

Steiner makes two other points worth mentioning about the consequences of language abuse: as usable words are lost, experience becomes cruder and less communicable. And, with the loss of subtlety, clarity, and reliability of language — the failure of the social contract we count on when we speak — we become more vulnerable to crude exercises of power.

Remote as we may think we are from the horrors of the German propaganda machine, the applicability of Steiner’s concern to the condition of contemporary American English may be obvious upon reflection. The generation of students coming through universities now expect to be lied to. They know about “spin” and about the profiteering agendas of corporate advertising. They have grown used to the flippant, incessantly ironic banter that passes for conversation in the media and many learn to avoid positive claims by verbal backpedaling: “like” before every clause that might threaten to make a distinction one might argue with, and “whatever” after approximations that never reach solid declarative ground. They also recognize, because these corruptions have been so pervasive in their short lifetimes, how much political discourse consists of ad hominem argument, accusation, smear campaigns, hyperbole, broken promises, distortions, and lies. If they’re reading mainstream magazines and papers or watching network television, they are receiving a daily diet of euphemisms, overgeneralizations, and evasions that pass for political and cultural analysis. Though they are being taught in classrooms to be critical of empty rhetoric and unsupported claims, the debased currency of public discourse is overwhelmingly available to them, and so their own access to reliable language is diminished and uncertain. They need our help.

We can help by caring for words. We need to mean what we say. We need to reclaim words that have been colonized and held hostage by commercial and political agencies that have riddled them with distorted meanings. As speakers of English, we are still abundantly equipped for the task. Simply in terms of number of available words English is one of the richest languages in the world. (To point this out is not to suggest there is less value in other languages; we need them; each of them does something English can’t.) My intention here is primarily to address readers who speak and read English most of the time, so I will focus primarily on the responsibilities of speakers of English, though the general challenge to stewardship of language applies to any speaker on earth.

The number of words in English is over a million today. An average educated person knows about 20,000 words and uses about 2000 in a week. More than half the world’s technical and scientific periodicals and three quarters of the world’s mail are in English. About 80 percent of the information stored in the world’s computers is in English. English is transmitted to more than 100 million people a day by the five largest broadcasting companies.

But consider these facts about Americans who speak English:
• At least 50 percent of the unemployed are functionally illiterate. (U.S. Dept. of Labor Statistics)
• The average kindergarten student has seen more than 5,000 hours of television, having spent more time in front of the TV than it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree. (Laubach Literacy Action)
• 27 percent of Army enlistees can’t read training manuals written at the seventh-grade level. (American Council of Life Insurance)
• 44 percent� of all American adults do not read one book in the course of a year. (Literacy Volunteers of America)

Evidence for Orwell’s claim that “the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes,” (not to mention political and economic consequences) appears to be abundant. Avoiding that decline requires focused and sustained activism.

To maintain usable and reliable language — to be good stewards of words — we have at least to do these three things: 1) to deepen and sharpen our reading skills, 2) to cultivate habits of speaking and listening that foster precision and clarity, and 3) to practice poesis — to be makers and doers of the word. For these purposes we need regularly to exercise the tongue and the ear: to indulge in word play, to delight in metaphor, to practice specificity and accuracy, to listen critically and refuse clichés and sound bites that substitute for authentic analysis. Such deliberate focus on language is not an elitist enterprise. With over 26 million functionally illiterate people in this country, those of us who voluntarily and regularly pick up books, newspapers, and Bibles do, in fact, belong to a privileged group. Our job is not to eschew that privilege, but to use it for the sake of the whole.

I want to suggest some practices that may help to retrieve, revive, and renew our precious language resources; there are effective ways to do so. But if we may postpone the pleasure of positive thinking for a few more paragraphs, it may be pertinent to name more specifically than above the most pervasive problems we currently face in public discourse and mass media. As Thomas Hardy says, “If way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst” (Hardy, “In Tenebris,”168).

Think about the kinds of language abuse to which we have become accustomed — perhaps so accustomed, we cease to be offended by them: thoughtless hyperbole, unexamined metaphors, slogans and sound bites, grammatical confusion, ungrounded abstractions, overstatement, and blather. Consider, for example, how often a new product or enterprise is touted as the “best ever,” every program “really exciting,” or every child’s effort “terrific.” Or how words like “wonderful,” “great,” “fantastic,” “incredible” and — most regrettably — “awesome” have progressively lost not only their original meanings, but their precision and impact by dint of a kind of verbal promiscuity. Consider, too, widely marketed expressions that confuse important issues, for instance, the much bandied threat to “smoke” the enemy “out of their holes,” or the appropriation of “family” to describe a corporation’s workforce. Or the description of war as a “job” we have to finish.

The more candid among those who work for network news media will acknowledge that they are driven by the sound bite and by an audience conditioned to a shrinking attention span: many newspapers write to a fourth-grade reading level and so train readers to expect nothing more challenging. This editorial policy entails radical abbreviation of what needs careful qualification and creates a public who take their cues from, and sometimes stop at, headlines. (It might give us pause to remember that 19th century newspapers didn’t have headlines — only columns of print that left the reader to sort out what was important in the course of reading.)

As words fall into disuse, the experiences they articulate become, themselves, less accessible. Think of the wide middle range of experience recalled in Jane Austen’s novels with their rich vocabulary of nuance and fine distinction — words like agreeable, amiable, affable, genial, and kind — all sounding different affective tonalities. With the loss of such subtleties, and of careful grammatical distinctions (slippage in subject-verb agreement, misplaced apostrophes, inconsistency of tenses — mistakes that undermine clarity), we become more confined to the kinds of broad strokes that make us careless and so make us care less. Text-messaging has rapidly eroded concern for spelling and punctuation and trains millions of users to be content to trade subtlety for speed. Movements and policies and points of view that deserve explanation are too often summarily accepted or dismissed by a kind of automatic sort-and-sift response to code labels and words that end with an “ism.”

With all this slippage comes a diminished range of allusion, a loss disturbingly documented in E.D. Hirsch’s controversial book “Cultural Literacy.” (I have found, for instance, that in many undergraduate classes I have to explain the origins of terms like “luddite” or “pyrrhic victory” or even “sacrificial lamb.” Few Americans now take enough Latin or Greek, or modern foreign languages, to have even a vestigial awareness of the etymological layers of meaning that enrich the words they use.

We inflict corrosive kinds of irony even upon the very young: from Sesame Street onward, sarcasm, mild insults, and ironic banter take the place of story or sustained conversation. We allow many of the brightest among us to isolate and insulate themselves behind walls of technical, professional, and academic jargon. Higher education and academic degrees don’t necessarily equip leaders to sustain functional democracy by speaking to the people with clarity, precision, and accuracy. Rather academics often become preoccupied with conversations conducted within and for the benefit of an exclusive guild.

Within the business community and beyond, we have normalized the language of investment and profit. Self-interest and increase pervade not only “motivational” seminars in the workplace, but even churches’ evangelical campaigns. The marketing language that tends to dominate descriptions of human interaction in a capitalist economy makes us all vulnerable to a habit of mind that obscures or decentralizes a much deeper understanding of the gift character of all that is, and our familial relationship to all life and especially to each other. We lose at great cost common expressions that remind us that some things cannot be bought and sold.

Normalizing the language of the marketplace within the academy and the church confuses and ultimately subverts our deepest purposes: in the one case, to promote critical thought and exchange of ideas free from coercion by those in positions of political or economic power, in the other to call people to something so radically different from the terms and paradigms of this world that it can only be spoken of in the variegated, complex, much-translated, much-pondered, prayerfully interpreted language of texts that have kept generations of people of faith kneeling at the threshold of unspeakable mystery and love beyond telling.

So what are the alternatives? Market language is the dominant idiom of the culture. By way of an answer, let me return to the ecological analogy. Like the food industry, the fuel industries, and the high-tech industries that make up the infrastructures we inhabit, the political, economic, and social systems in which the word industry is enmeshed shape its ends and to a very large degree control its means. We are all involved in those systems. Words come to us processed like cheese, depleted of nutrients, flattened and packaged, artificially colored and mass marketed. And just as it takes a little extra effort and intention to find, buy, eat and support the production of organic foods, it is a strenuous business to insist on usable, flexible, precise, enlivening language.

The sheer volume of use is a language issue comparable to increased use of electricity, land, and fossil fuels. I have surveyed students regularly over the past several years as to how much silence they experience in the course of a day. Upwards of 90 percent now claim they do all their studying to background music or in the presence of background conversation. Many of them multitask as they study, fielding instant text messages and cell phone calls while at work on papers that too often exhibit the superficial thought and repetitive, imprecise language that is the inevitable result of work done under such conditions. In other words, their environment is glutted with words, sung, spoken, written, to be consumed thoughtlessly like disposable products, often as buffers against the pain of thought or the spiritual strenuousness of silence.

I don’t say this to blame them for these practices. Many of them, despite what I describe, are thoughtfully seeking a way through the morass. But they have been a “target market” their whole lives — literally victims of forces so large, relentless, and skillfully camouflaged, many of them still have no sense that they are being used and abused by those who define and market privilege.

Just as they have never known a world without abundant electrical energy and electronic conveniences, so they have enjoyed less silence in their media-saturated world than any previous generation. When I teach Jane Austen, I pause over a description of the Bennett sisters’ hearing the sound of horses’ hooves a mile away and ask students to try to imagine the ambient silences of the early 19th century where sounds were discrete and distinct, and the sounds of the natural world were not obscured by white noise. The point is this: because these students hear so many words so constantly, their capacities to pause over words, ponder them, reflect upon them, hear the echoes of ancient cadences, and attune themselves to allusiveness and alliteration, are eroding.

This brings me directly to my final point in this darkly diagnostic reflection. Those of us who preach and teach and minister to each other — which includes all of us seeking actively to be the Body of Christ in the world — need to focus on the word — on words — more explicitly, intentionally, and caringly as part of the practice of our trade. It is a kind of activism, necessary and urgent, to resist newspeak, to insist on precision and clarity, to love the bald statement, the long sentence, the particular example, the extended definition, the specifics of story, and the legacy of language we carry in our pocket Bibles and on the shelf in Shakespeare. We are in the business of working for the kingdom, and that means to be stewards of the treasures that have been put into our keeping. We’re not doing too well with fossil fuels and wetlands. I commend those causes to you as well — but along with them, conversation itself — the long conversation that is the warp and woof of civil and communal life.

Peter’s admonition to “be sober, be watchful” (I Peter 5:8) applies to this enterprise. Noticing how things are put, noticing what is being left out or subverted, takes an active habit of mind. But what is our task as a logocentric people if not to cherish the word? God, whose robe is the light, whose canopy space, who also became the “word within a word, unable to speak a word,” has put a measure of God’s own power into our hands and on our tongues.

So let me end by commending to you a short list of stewardship strategies that may make a vital difference in our life together. How to implement them is worth considerable conversation:
May all our words, and our silences, be gifts to one another.

This article is reprinted with permission from Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., which will present “Care of the Word” in spring 2008.

Marilyn McEntyre, who earned a doctorate in English at Princeton University, joined the English faculty at Westmont in 1996. She has written numerous books, including three volumes of poetry reflecting on the art of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Gogh.

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