5 Verbicide

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In the beginning was the Word.

—John 1:1

He entered my office for advice as a freshman advisee sporting nearly

perfect SAT scores and an impeccable academic record—by all accounts

a young man of considerable promise. During a 20-minute

conversation about his academic future, however, he displayed a vocabulary

that consisted mostly of two words: “cool” and “really.” Almost

800 SAT points hitched to each word. To be fair, he could use

them interchangeably as “really cool” or “cool . . . really!” He could also

use them singly, presumably for emphasis. When he became one of

my students in a subsequent class I confirmed that my first impression

of the young scholar was largely accurate and that his vocabulary, and

presumably his mind, consisted predominantly of words and images

derived from overexposure to television and the new jargon of computer-

speak. He is no aberration, but an example of a larger problem,

not of illiteracy but of diminished literacy in a culture that often sees

little reason to use words carefully, however abundantly. Increasingly,

student papers, from otherwise very good students, have whole paragraphs

that sound like advertising copy. Whether students are talking

or writing, a growing number have a tenuous grasp on a declining vocabulary.

Excise “uh . . . like . . . uh” from virtually any teenage conversation,

and the effect is like sticking a pin into a balloon.

In the past 50 years, by one reckoning, the working vocabulary of

the average 14-year-old has declined from some 25,000 words to

10,000 words (“Harper’s Index” 2000). This reflects not merely a decline

in numbers of words but in the capacity to think. It also reflects

a steep decline in the number of things that an adolescent needs to

know and to name in order to get by in an increasingly homogenized

and urbanized consumer society. This is a national tragedy virtually

unnoticed in the media. It is no mere coincidence that in roughly the

same half century the average person has learned to recognize more

than 1,000 corporate logos but can recognize fewer than 10 plants

and animals native to their locality (Hawken 1993, 214). That fact

says a great deal about why the decline in working vocabulary has

gone unnoticed—few are paying attention. The decline is surely not

consistent across the full range of language but concentrates in those

areas having to do with large issues such as philosophy, religion, public

policy, and nature. On the other hand, vocabulary has probably increased

in areas having to do with sex, violence, recreation, and consumption.

As a result, we are losing the capacity to say what we really

mean and ultimately to think about what we mean.We are losing the

capacity for articulate intelligence about the things that matter most.

“That sucks,” for example, is a common way for budding young scholars

to announce their displeasure about any number of issues that

range across the full spectrum of human experience. But it can also be

used to indicate a general displeasure with the entire cosmos. Whatever

the target, it is the linguistic equivalent of using duct tape for

holding disparate thoughts in rough proximity to some vague emotion

of dislike.

The problem is not confined to teenagers or young adults. It is

part of a national epidemic of incoherence evident in our public discourse,

street talk, movies, television, and music. We have all heard

popular music that consisted mostly of pre-Neanderthal grunts. We

have witnessed “conversation” on TV talk shows that would have em-

barrassed retarded chimpanzees. We have listened to politicians of

national reputation proudly mangle logic and language in less than a

paragraph, although they can do it on a larger scale as well. However

manifested, it is aided and abetted by academics, including whole departments

specializing in various forms of postmodernism and the

deconstruction of one thing or another. They propounded ideas that

everything was relative, hence largely inconsequential, and that the

use of language was an exercise in power, hence to be devalued. They

taught, in other words, a pseudo-intellectual contempt for clarity,

careful argument, and felicitous expression. Being scholars of their

word, they also wrote without clarity, argument, and felicity. Remove

half a dozen arcane words from any number of academic papers written

in the past 10 years and the argument—whatever it was—evaporates.

But the situation is not much better elsewhere in the academy

where thought is often fenced in by disciplinary jargon. The fact is

that educators have all too often been indifferent trustees of language.

This explains, I think, why the academy has been a lame critic of what

ails the world from the preoccupation with self to technology run

amuck.We have been unable to speak out against the barbarism engulfing

the larger culture because we are part of the process of barbarization

that begins with the devaluation of language.

The decline of language, noted by commentators such as H. L.

Mencken, George Orwell, William Safire, and Edwin Newman, is

nothing new. Language is always coming undone. Why? For one thing,

it is always under assault by those who intend to control others by first

seizing the words and metaphors by which people describe their

world. The goal is to give partisan aims the appearance of inevitability

by diminishing the sense of larger possibilities. In our time language is

under assault by those whose purpose it is to sell one kind of quackery

or another: economic, political, religious, or technological. It is under

attack because the clarity and felicity of language (as distinct from its

quantity) is devalued in an industrial-technological society. The clear

and artful use of language is, in fact, threatening to that society. As a

result we have highly distorted and atrophied conversations about ultimate

meanings, ethics, public purposes, or the means by which we

live. Since we cannot solve problems that we cannot name, one result

of our misuse of language is a growing agenda of unsolved problems

that cannot be adequately described in words and metaphors derived

from our own creations such as machines and computers.

V E R B I C I D E 55

Second, language is in decline because it is being balkanized

around the specialized vocabularies characteristic of an increasingly

specialized society. The highly technical language of the expert is, of

course, both bane and blessing. It is useful for describing fragments of

the world, but not for describing how these fit into a coherent whole.

But things work as whole systems, whether or not we can say it and

whether or not we perceive it. And more than anything else, it is coherence

our culture lacks, not specialized knowledge. Genetic engineering,

for example, can be described as a technical matter in the

language of molecular biology. But saying what the act of rearranging

the genetic fabric of earth means requires an altogether different language

and a mind-set that seeks to discover larger patterns. Similarly,

the specialized language of economics does not begin to describe the

state of our well-being, whatever it reveals about how much we may

or may not possess. Regardless of these arguments, over and over the

language of the specialist trumps that of the generalist—the specialist

in whole things. The result is that the capacity to think carefully

about ends, as distinct from means, has all but disappeared from our

public and private conversations.

Third, language reflects the range and depth of our experience,

but our experience of the world is being impoverished to the extent

that it is rendered artificial and prepackaged. Most of us no longer

have the experience of skilled physical work on farms or in forests.

Consequently words and metaphors based on intimate knowledge of

soils, plants, trees, animals, landscapes, and rivers have declined. “Cut

off from this source,”Wendell Berry writes, “language becomes a paltry

work of conscious purpose, at the service and the mercy of expedient

aims” (1983, 33). Our experience of an increasingly uniform

and ugly world is being engineered and shrink-wrapped by recreation

and software industries and pedaled back to us as “fun” or “information.”

We’ve become a nation of television watchers and Internet

browsers, and it shows in the way we talk and what we talk about.

More and more we speak as if we are voyeurs furtively peeking in on

life, not active participants, moral agents, or engaged citizens.

Fourth, we are no longer held together, as we once were, by the

reading of a common literature or by listening to great stories and so

cannot draw on a common set of metaphors and images as we once

did. Allusions to the Bible and great works of literature no longer resonate

because they are simply unfamiliar to a growing number of

people. This is so in part because the consensus about what is worth

reading has come undone. But the debate about a worthy canon is

hardly the whole story. The ability to read serious literature with seriousness

is diminished by overexposure to television and computers

that overdevelop the visual sense. The desire to read is jeopardized by

the same forces that would make us a violent, shallow, hedonistic, and

materialistic people. As a nation we risk coming undone because our

language is coming undone and our language is coming undone because

one by one we are being undone.

The problem of language is a global problem. Of the roughly

5,000 languages now spoken on earth, only 150 or so are expected to

survive to the year 2100. Language everywhere is being whittled

down to the dimensions of the global economy and homogenized to

accord with the imperatives of the information age. This represents a

huge loss of cultural information and a blurring of our capacity to understand

the world and our place in it. And it represents a losing bet

that a few people armed with the words, metaphors, and mindset

characteristic of industry and technology that flourished destructively

for a few decades can, in fact, manage the earth, a different, more

complex, and longer-lived thing altogether.

Because we cannot think clearly about what we cannot say

clearly, the first casualty of linguistic incoherence is our ability to

think well about many things. This is a reciprocal process. Language,

George Orwell once wrote, “becomes ugly and inaccurate because

our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it

easier for us to have foolish thoughts” (1981, 157). In our time the

words and metaphors of the consumer economy are often a product

of foolish thoughts as well as evidence of bad language. Under the onslaught

of commercialization and technology, we are losing the sense

of wholeness and time that is essential to a decent civilization.We are

losing, in short, the capacity to articulate what is most important to

us. And the new class of corporate chiefs, global managers, genetic engineers,

and money speculators has no words with which to describe

the fullness and beauty of life or to announce its role in the larger

moral ecology. They have no metaphors by which they can say how

we fit together in the community of life and so little idea beyond that

of self-interest about why we ought to protect it. They have, in short,

no language that will help humankind navigate through the most

dangerous epoch in its history. On the contrary, they will do all in

V E R B I C I D E 57

their power to reduce language to the level of utility, function, management,

self-interest, and the short term. Evil begins not only with

words used with malice; it can begin with words that merely diminish

people, land, and life to some fragment that is less than whole and less

than holy. The prospects for evil, I believe, will grow as those for language

decline.

We have an affinity for language, and that capacity makes us

human. When language is devalued, misused, or corrupted, so too are

those who speak it and those who hear it. On the other hand, we are

never better than when we use words clearly, eloquently, and civilly.

Language does not merely reflect the relative clarity of mind; it can elevate

thought and ennoble our behavior. Abraham Lincoln’s words at

Gettysburg in 1863, for example, gave meaning to the terrible sacrifices

of the Civil War. Similarly,Winston Churchill’s words moved an

entire nation to do its duty in the dark hours of 1940. If we intend to

protect and enhance our humanity, we must first decide to protect

and enhance language and fight everything that undermines and

cheapens it.

What does this mean in practical terms? How do we design language

facility back into the culture? My first suggestion is to restore

the habit of talking directly to each other—whatever the loss in economic

efficiency. To that end I propose that we begin by smashing

every device used to communicate in place of a real person, beginning

with answering machines. Messages like “Your call is important to us”

or “For more options, please press five, or if you would like to talk to a

real person, please stay on the line” are the death rattle of a coherent

culture. Hell, yes, I want to talk to a real person, and preferably one

who is competent and courteous!

My second suggestion is to restore the habit of public reading.

One of my very distinctive childhood memories was attending a public

reading of Shakespeare by the British actor Charles Laughton.

With no prop other than a book, he read with energy and passion for

two hours and kept a large audience enthralled, including one eightyear-

old boy. No movie was ever as memorable to me. Further, I propose

that adults should turn off the television, disconnect the cable,

undo the computer, and once again read good books aloud to their

children. I know of no better or more pleasurable way to stimulate

thinking, encourage a love of language, and facilitate the child’s ability

to form images.

Third, those who corrupt language ought to be held accountable

for what they do—beginning with the advertising industry. In 1997

the advertising industry spent an estimated $187 billion to sell us an

unconscionable amount of stuff, much of it useless, environmentally

destructive, and deleterious to our health. They fuel the fires of consumerism

that are consuming the earth and our children’s future.

They regard the public with utter contempt—as little more than a

herd of sheep to be manipulated to buy anything at the highest possible

cost and at any consequence. Dante would have consigned them

to the lowest level of hell, only because there was no worse place to

put them.We should too. Barring that excellent idea, we should insist

that they abide by community standards of truthfulness in selling

what they peddle, including full disclosure of what the products do to

the environment and to those who use them.

Fourth, language, I believe, grows from the outside in, from the

periphery to center. It is renewed in the vernacular where human intentions

intersect particular places, circumstances, and by the everyday

acts of authentic living and speaking. It is, by the same logic, corrupted

by contrivance, pretense, and fakery. The center where power

and wealth work by contrivance, pretense, and fakery does not create

language so much as exploit it. To facilitate control, it would make

our language as uniform and dull as the interstate highway system.

Given its way, we would have only one newspaper, a super–USA

Today. Our thoughts and words would mirror those popular in Washington,

New York, Boston, or Los Angeles. From the perspective of

the center, the merger of ABC and Disney is okay because it can see

no difference between entertainment and news. To preserve the vernacular

places where language grows, we need to protect the independence

of local newspapers and local radio stations. We need to

protect local culture in all of its forms from domination by national

media, markets, and power. Understanding that cultural diversity and

biological diversity are different faces of the same coin, we must protect

those parts of our culture where memory, tradition, and devotion

to place still exist.

Finally, because language is the only currency wherever men and

women pursue truth, there should be no higher priority for schools,

colleges, and universities than to defend the integrity and clarity of

language in every way possible.We must instill in our students an appreciation

for language, literature, and words well crafted and used to

V E R B I C I D E 59

good ends. As teachers we should insist on good writing. We should

assign books and readings that are well written. We should restore

rhetoric, the ability to speak clearly and well, to the liberal arts curriculum.

Our own speaking and writing ought to demonstrate clarity

and truthfulness. And we, too, should be held accountable for what

we say.

In terms of sheer volume of words, factoids, and data of all kinds, this

is surely an information age. But in terms of understanding, wisdom,

spiritual clarity, and civility, we have entered a darker age. We are

drowning in a sea of words with nary a drop to drink.We are in the

process of committing what C. S. Lewis once called “verbicide”

(Aeschliman 1983, 5). The volume of words in our time is inversely

related to our capacity to use them well and to think clearly about

what they mean. It is no wonder that during a dreary century of

gulags, genocide, global wars, and horrible weapons, our use of language

was dominated by propaganda and advertising and controlled

by language technicians. “We have a sense of evil,” Susan Sontag has

said, but we no longer have “the religious or philosophical language

to talk intelligently about evil” (Miller 1998, 55). That being so for

the twentieth century, what will be said at the end of the twenty-first

century, when the stark realities of climatic change and biotic impoverishment

will become fully apparent? Can we summon the clarity

of mind to speak the words necessary to cause us to do what in hindsight

will merely appear to have been obvious all along?