Brandon Giella

Brandon is a writer and editor living in South Carolina. He is also a graduate student in theology, specializing in linguistics and the philosophy of language.

The Liquidation of Language

“The great enemy of clear language,” wrote George Orwell in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” “is insincerity.” Language is being liquidated, sold off piece by piece, its assets turned over and redistributed for other purposes. “Language,” he wrote, “is in a bad way.” (Orwell’s essay was published in 1946, three years before he wrote about Syme and the Newspeak dictionary in his classic dystopia 1984.)

To be sincere is to be clear. Readers and listeners sense that they are being lied to when the message is buried beneath jargon, euphemism or cliché. One may escape the reaches of Wi-Fi, but one cannot escape communication. It is the way humans connect, the way they express themselves, and the way they progress civilization. Ask anyone who has had to learn a new language in a foreign country: he was instantly brought low—the inability to communicate left him as a toddler. Language is not simply a tool, with its uses determining whether it is good or bad. Nothing is simply a tool. But even tools shape who we are by offering us choices that we previously did not have. Language is thus a moral consideration.

This is the case Marilyn McEntyre makes in her book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. Like Orwell, she believes language is in a bad way. She observes how “many newspapers write to a fourth-grade level and so train readers to expect nothing more challenging.” Or this: “Forty-four percent of all American adults do not read a single book in the course of a year.” Young people are brought up in a culture of public discourse saturated with political smearing and accusations, advertising’s lies and slogans, and television’s hyperbole and over-generalizations meant for mass consumption. This isn’t young people’s fault, of course. They have been the “target market” their whole lives, “literally victims of corporate forces so large, relentless and skillfully camouflaged” that they don’t even know they’re being attacked. They’re taught in classrooms “to be critical of empty rhetoric,” but all they see from adults in their lives, in print and on TV is gossip, ad hominem attacks, hyperbole and lies, so is it any wonder they don’t want to listen? In short, “they need our help.”

In order to think clearly, humans must speak clearly. So then, “the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.” In the classical sense, this sort of education was the most prized form. Classical curriculum in the old Latin schools was the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music), which dominated schooling for over a thousand years, but then started to recede in the nineteenth century. Recovering this ancient tradition may perhaps revitalize our current state of apathy and misuse. But in order to get there, we must understand what language is and what it is not.

Some say the purpose of language is to assert or deny ideas. Some say the exact opposite, that language is used to disguise meaning, like a soldier saying he “reduced the element” rather than he killed a person; politicians employ this use of language daily. Orwell said much when he wrote, “Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.” And still others argue, “language exists to communicate whatever it can communicate.” But I say that language is like a liquid. It’s hard to set down hard rules on it. What was once considered The Rule fifty years ago is now no longer a rule.

For example, in their essays “Grammar Puss” and “Tense Present,” authors Steven Pinker and David Foster Wallace, respectively, trace where the “Do not split infinitives” rule came from, going back to Latin and eighteenth-century grammar textbooks. “Julius Caesar could not have split an infinitive if he had wanted to. In Latin the infinitive is a single word such as ‘facere,’” but English has two-word infinitives; so grammatically there is no reason English can’t split infinitives. Further, language changes almost too quickly to record: dictionaries and Bibles must be updated with each generation. But these prescriptive rules “serve as shibboleths, differentiating the elite from the rabble.” Or let Stephen Fry convince you of the silliness of many grammar rules.

Like liquids, language has immense power. A small stream can move massive amounts of dirt, and a little flood can destroy a town. Who has not been moved by a line of verse? Who has not altered heaps of her life due to a single quote? Who can forget what that one person said to you in a fit of anger, or that small criticism of your personality? A single word has more power than a thousand missiles. Caring for words is one of the most important activities a person can do.

Thinking in this way, and attempting to use language with precision and care comes with a risk. For choosing “to go beyond the adequate is sometimes to risk the look of elitism, the accusation of pretentiousness or pedantry.” Or, as Wallace labels them, “Grammar Nazis, Usage Nerds, Syntax Snobs, Language Police,” in a word, “snoot.” This is the case with every discipline: writing, art, design, whatever. Some people will always snarl at you for wanting to be better. The irony is that in wanting to be a better thinker, writer, or theologian, one desires to be clearer and simpler, thus desiring to be less pedantic, not more.

You see, this clarity and precision is actually meant to care more for people. McEntyre writes,

“Precision is, after all, not only a form of responsibility and a kind of pleasure, but an instrument of compassion. To be precise requires care, time, and attention to the person, place, or process being described.”

Imprecision is apathy and laziness. It has damaging returns, especially for people of faith. God created language, and thus people of God ought to (are commanded to) care immensely about the words they use. Again, language, especially for people of faith, is a moral consideration, and its proper care requires a liberal amount of humility. Think for a moment about the humility of God in giving his word over to humans to be translated, or preaching that word through a translator; even with our most precise humans we are still falling short, and God shows compassion.

Instead of saying they’re “hanging out with friends,” Christians say they’re “fellowshipping in community.” Instead of “I think,” it’s “I feel called.” This may perhaps, like academic jargon, give an air of spiritual superiority. But more than that: it separates who is “in” and who is not, separating believers from unbelievers. One knows that the other is in the Christian club when he or she says, “We’re being intentional about doing life together,” rather than, “We’re going to eat a cheeseburger at a restaurant.” Instead of saying, “I like being nice to people,” Christians say, “I like coming alongside and loving on people.” This sort of Christian cliché is the opposite of inclusion, and is thus a subtle rejection of the gospel they proclaim; a subtle rejection that can be avoided by thinking more sharply and reading more widely, or relating more broadly.To non-Christians these phrases will immediately sound like tunes on a cracked tea kettle. What would “I’m just washed in the blood” sound like to someone who has never gone to church?

The irony here is that Christians spend their time (or should spend their time) studying the greatest literary work in human civilization, higher than even Shakespeare or Milton. The “legacy of the English Bible alone is at least equivalent to owning all the oil in the Middle East… it gives its readers unequaled access to and control over the shaping of public discourse.” Go to the book of Proverbs, for example, and underline every reference to the tongue, lips, the mouth, or words, and you will have underlined well over one hundred times. Yet the brilliance of the Bible is whittled down and repeated so often that its phrases have little originality anymore. As Orwell wrote, “Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.”

Some will argue that rather than pretense, jargon or exclusion, Christian English is only a different dialect of American English shared between a common group or Discourse Community, a term known as code switching. We all do it. Parents talk in one way to each other and another to their kids; this is true also of bosses and employees, coaches and players, scholars and laity, and within various schools or organizations. David Foster Wallace says that everyone knows this. But what everyone doesn’t know is that these dialects “have their own highly developed and internally consistent grammars” that are “nearly incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t inside their very tight and specific Discourse Community.” The purpose of code switching is to conceal meaning rather than reveal it. That is, again, a subtle form of exclusion. (Though it’s also the case in each time period in history. Wallace argues that modern English speakers say, “I was attacked by a bear!” but two hundred years ago we might have said, “That ursine juggernaut bethought to sup upon my person!”)

Language may be in a bad way, and people may think that we are so far down the road that turning back now is pointless. We might as well go on to the next town and gather supplies there. But I hope that we try to slow it down, to recover the lost art of listening, speaking and reading well, that our fellow primates may, at the very least, enjoy some of the words we speak and write.

Saving language is effectually saving people. It would seem not at all unjustifiable in view of these assertions to proceed and replicate these principles to persons in various and sundry geographic regions.

In other words, go therefore and make disciples of all nations.