My blog contains a large number of posts. A few are included in various other publications, or as attached stories and chronicles in my emails; many more are found on loose leaves, while some are written carelessly in margins and blank spaces of my notebooks. Of the last sort most are nonsense, now often unintelligible even when legible, or half-remembered fragments. Enjoy responsibly.

Friday, October 26, 2007

In Defense of Words

I have measured out my life in the etherized words of others.

Our language is intentionally flexible. It has grown, evolved, expanded, and become a force for social, political, and environmental change. Nothing is more powerful then the written word. That is why I get so upset when I see people attempting to stretch certain words to their breaking point, destroying their original meaning without either context or ability to justify the change.

Case in point: Torture. The original word the Latin tortura and dates back almost 2,500 years and means “to twist”. For most of that time it has been defined close to our current definition of:

  1. anguish of body or mind, something that causes agony or pain.
  2. the infliction of intense pain (as from burning, crushing, or wounding) to punish, coerce, or afford sadistic pleasure.

Now without getting into the argument that torture, no matter how it appears on TV, is extremely ineffective and gives the impression that we cannot stay within our own laws, has become tortured itself. The current administration continuously says that we “don’t torture”, yet does not define what they believe the word “torture” means. In the beginning we were left to assume that we did not torture as it was defined in the Geneva Convention or how we understood it in our common vernacular. Then something strange happened, we found out that we do actually torture and have gone way beyond the current definitions. To add insult to injury, the word was continuously used until it had lost almost all meaning. We can now safely say that we torture, but don’t torture.

It’s in the evolution of the words that we find their true meaning. And in certain people, who choose their words carefully, that the slow progression of the word still thrives. I don’t believe that it takes a Chomsky or Eliot to become an expert in such matters. I am lucky enough to know several people, one in particular, who does a wonderful job at selecting just the right words for the situation. I wish I knew what causes some people to work so hard on finding just the right word while other carelessly toss them in every direction.

But maybe a bit more history is called for. In the beginning of the twentieth-century linguists began to believe that there was a capacity in individuals to produce and understand utterances. Noam Chomsky famously characterized this as a conceptual shift from a historical preoccupation with ‘E-language’ (a set of externalized utterances) to an emphasis on ‘I-language’ (principles internalized by the language learner). This focus be modern linguists on individual capacity to acquire and use language (called ontogeny) led to a flowering or research, allowing the biological and neural underpinnings of language to be studied coherently, and opening the door to consideration of how the language faculty evolved biologically (called phylogeny). But this approach left behind the traditional questions of cultural evolution of individual languages (called glossogeny) that tantalized earlier generations of linguists.

So how words change and evolve is still being heatedly argued. This leaves the rest of us as part of the process. Or as Chomsky would argue, the underlying explanation for how words change comes down to the individuals who learn and use the language. It is in the fusing of the academic theoretical models of cultural evolution to experimental investigations of social learning in the laboratory that the understanding of what markers and idiosyncrasies are need to cause a change in language.

Above all else, one thing is certain: It is our daily use and misuse of words that sculpt the next generations’ vocabulary. We should, we must, focus not just on the way in which we say things, but in the specific words that we use. If we do not, our beautifully descriptive language will become nothing but sound and thunder.

2 comments:

Neena said...

“When words are scarce they are seldom spent in vain.”
-William Shakespeare

Perhaps the person(s) whom choose their syntax meticulously are those individuals who perceive the magnitude of parlance.

Words, by their own conception, are tools; essence of communication, indication of evolution. Words are art; poetry, chronicles of time, articulation of emotions. Words are also weapons; twisted to undermine, fashioned to deceive.

What most men are incognizant of are words symbolize who they are. Individuals who toil eternally to uncover the mot juste are those who appreciate the gravity, understand the consequence, recognize the influence, and grasp the responsibility of words.

The men, who opt to squander words, possess no concept of their value, or perchance they wouldn’t expend them so ineffectually.

Quick Profile said...

And that is when her thesaurus exploded...