Monday, January 26, 2009

The Gift

Language Is the Greatest Gift

A gift, something given, is by derivation from “to give” something unmerited and outside of our control. The word itself came into Middle English from gipt in Old Norse. Most gifts, even the commonplace ones of care and concern, habit, food and other necessities, come to us as inheritance from our parents or so many others who have endeavored and gone on before us in the eon past. If we know our pioneer ancestry or recognize even a slice of history, the contributions of the past, given to us, come to mind. The most extraordinary gift, however, and the one that is at the basis of all the rest is language.

Thanks to language, we construct and communicate the sense and meaning of our experiences. Orality precedes and turns into literacy, a process still underway after thousands of years. From language and its written form come concepts, the creation and transmission of community and culture. Knowledge becomes a human enterprise, and we are on the road to civilization. The possibilities and choices for learning accumulate and grow, then explode. So, too, do politics and bureaucracy, speculation and religion, science and superstition, literature and the conscious appreciation of the arts. Throughout endless permutations between thought and talk, we lose track of any conscious ability to separate mentality and verbalization.

We tend to take language for granted likely because the absorption of it is osmotic and with little seeming effort. An excited two-year old runs at us to announce, “I builded a tower!” The tot first follows the regularity of most English grammar, but in easy time soon learns the exceptions. It is built not builded, went not goed, and so on. We soon grow so comfortable in our native tongue, that we only get riled over it when we think it threatened by another language or variations in our preferred way of using words. In forty-plus years as an educator, the most hostile discussion of my experience was a group of highly educated colleagues arguing over bilingualism. Rosalie Maggio tells that when she toured promoting her book The Dictionary of Bias-Free Usage on talk radio shows, such examples as gyp and welsh that she used to illustrate ethnic slurs brought hostile callers phoning in and accusing her of “changing the language.”

Few metaphors about language surface in common consciousness beyond the stories of the Tower of Babel and the visitation at Pentecost. These andirons either side of the living and uncontrollable fires of language reflect a desire for one language for all. At Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), God confused the words of those seeking to reach heaven by their own merits, and populations scattered over the earth. At Jerusalem (Acts 2: 1-13), an outpouring of the Spirit allowed foreigners, gathered together from throughout the known world, to hear all the others in their own language. Languages, which serve as instruments of commonality and inclusion, also in effect exclude those not of the lingua franca.

The desire for one language, preferably one’s own, has a long history. Among others, Sumerian, Sanskrit and Hindi, Chinese and Mandarin, Greek, Latin, Arabic, French, Spanish, and today’s English have all had their turn and wide influence. While efforts to keep Latin global, concoct formal languages such as Esperanto, or promote the simplifications of Basic English carried on the desire for a universal language, all fail. With the exception of American Sign Language, mathematics, and computer languages, all of whom have their “native speakers,” living languages require speakers living and interacting in the language of that linguistic culture. Consequently, languages change and by their evolution stay useful. Individual words may become archaic and die, but the language thrives.

However much we may take our given language for granted, with the treasure of language comes a great responsibility. And without a universal language, we must attend to the one we have. Language may evolve as much by naive deviation from some standard as it does by informed or creative intention. Yet, language use, if it is to serve as a vehicle of common understanding, requires certain rigor, accuracy, and honesty. We can wink at the innocent ignorance of the young student’s mangled definition: “Puberty is the stage between childhood and adultery.” Unfortunately, we often find, as expressed by Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, someone who uses the language “more to blackmail than to teach.” We live in an age of such blackguards, who whether for the low purposes of consumerism or the high purposes of political advantage, twist the language with misrepresentation and contrivance.

Expressions such as contract with America, core mission, culture wars, death taxes, digital divide, distance learning, family values, Judaeo-Christian, pro-life and other tortured anti-concepts contort language to mean something beyond what the words actually say. Along with these slights of tongue, even the dictionary definitions of conservative as traditional and liberal as advocate for human rights have become hacked to pieces and distorted from their established meanings. It is though Humpty Dumpty’s argument with Alice on the other side of the looking-glass has come to life.

“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Mastery in language – let us prefer proficiency - is a developmental skill; that is, a skill developed through practice. First, the language that has come to us from beyond our knowledge and wish, has charge over our understanding. Language, as the product of populations long before our time, is still the shared experience of the society in which we find ourselves. By personal cleverness, we may introduce new words and extended meanings into the common vocabulary, but they have no accuracy except as they bring us together in meaningfulness instead of separate us.

Otherwise, we return to the babble of Babel, a word that in origin means confusion.
Roger Sween, who gave up employment to read and write, finds himself captured by language and witness of its first-hand progress among five grandchildren, who range from toddlers to teenagers.

“Language: The Greatest Gift” was first published in The Carp, No. 20 (February 2008) 3.

© by Roger Sween 2008.