As I’ve shared before, I am one of those who cares deeply for words, big words, little words…words about words. I recently read Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s brilliant tete a tete on language entitled Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. In her book she offers some strategies by which those of us who make this claim can begin to reclaim the power, clarity and beauty of language from the many dangers both immanent and potential that beset it. She encourages us to become caretakers of language. At the top of that list is a simple but obvious one: become a lover of words.
Language and all it represents is a gift worth fighting for. God uses it to create and recreate. God, in some mystical sense most of us will never understand, is language; is words – the Word. Hence there exists an inseparability of language from the One whose idea it was to speak all things into existence by means of it. From the first words we read in Genesis, “In the beginning…God created…and it was good” we get a picture of the dominance of speech in the totality of human life. God, as Word, speaks words by which all we are and have come to know now, exists.
Language seems like it’s a God-thing alone in the first broad brush strokes of God’s ex nihilo creative activity. It’s not until another comes, by God’s design and in response to God’s words, that language can be seen as the glue in communication between parties. It now acts as the bedrock of love, community and progress. As language that is beautiful, reliable and truthful disappears, so does the community it was meant to gather and nurture.
We’ve lost our trust in the reliability of language. Words change over time. In many ways this has always been true and, to a large extent, inevitable. The problem is, however, that the purest forms of speech that give voice to our deepest needs, desires and passions have become as distorted and bent as we who use it. Whatever is meant by “the fall” it took language right along with it.
It’s common for any collective to morph according to the will of the alphas in the group. Similarly, the shape and demeanor of our communication will bend to the loudest kid in the room; it will come to serve whatever happens to be the most influential force to which we pay homage.
English is the undisputed language of commerce worldwide. Because English is the language of so much conquest, it is well practiced in the macabre arts of dominance and privilege. The sheer volume of English words coupled with its global dominance make its destruction both troublesome and ominous. Language has, for too long, been lashed to the flagpole of corporate nationalism, the yardarm of the sinking ship of words for their own sake where form is function. This cross-pollination of words has left a confusing moral-linguistic morass. For example, to use the warm-hearted language of family and connectivity in corporate interests or sports gibber-gabber to describe the horrors of war, we are effectively removed from the wider, deeper concerns language begs to convey and possibly amend.
Conversely, since English is also the collected amalgam of the street-speak of vanquished foes and victims of such empire building, it is a language of unparalleled nuance and texture. It needs those who love it for the latter while seeking to undo the damages of the former. It needs caretakers.
For words to do the work for which they were intended and move beyond mere factual transmission at best to manipulation and domination at worst, we must re-tool ourselves to being lovers of community built upon communication with words at the deepest levels. Words are performance art over against utility, a dance instead of marching army or typing pool. Like discovering our enemies have fears and dreams like we do, words can be freed to promote beauty, friendship and good will.
At least I hope so.