Language Legacies

Language Legacies

Ready for another go at language? I’ll resist the temptation to rave at length about how Trumpisms have leached into the speech of even serious people, polluting journalists and constitutional lawyers who now find themselves dropping “This I can tell you,” “When you look at . . . ,” and way too many gushes of incredibles and biggests and mosts for comfort.

Everyone has such tics, of course, and those in the public eye get imitated, like Sanders’ and Biden’s reliance on “The fact of the matter is …” to fill in when they’re stalling, their minds racing for an answer. But the spread of Trumptalk—the facile hype of an over-caffeinated door-to-door salesman crossed with the lingo of a mobster—is particularly odious.

This public adoption of a word or phrase, a sort of Zeitgeist-speak, seems to be increasing, probably propelled by the speed of social-media communication and in the case of powerful nations and dominating languages influenced by a consumer mentality that voraciously chews and spits out new things before anyone can taste them. For example, “doubling down” and “let’s unpack this,” all the rage in past months, are babbled less frequently now. Beginning a response to a question with the word “So,” as if one were continuing a sentence that had not actually been articulated, appears to be waning, but too slowly for me so I will be grateful when the fad fades. I’m already grateful that the F word–Feminism–is still “trendy,” since it took us 50 years to get it there and required Hollywood stars to popularize it.

The latest “hot” phrase going around is “on the spectrum,” as in referring to the spectrum of autism, Asperger’s, and related conditions. These conditions, about which we yet know relatively little, are serious. At their extreme, they can be tragically debilitating and incapacitating. But they also can be fertile terrain for the growth of sharp insight and high intelligence, both of which can shine through the suffering—although that bright lucency is not necessarily displayed in a societally traditional manner.

I celebrate the breaking of any silence that enforces pain, the surfacing of any previously taboo subject, and I admit I have difficulty being civil to anti-science anti-vaxxer types. The more we learn about the mysteries of the great brain and nervous system, the better off we’ll be as a species. It’s splendid that we now at least understand such conditions as autism exist along a spectrum, as so much else does—in this case, a spectrum of neurodiversity.

What I do find culturally bizarre is the manner in which the phrase “on the spectrum” is being snapped up, sometimes even being applied to persons not on such a spectrum but who rather choose, for good or ill, to be less emotionally available to others than others might wish. When we treat words as if they had no meaning, words lose their meaning. In a patriarchy, most men are socialized to be emotionally unavailable; does that mean most men are “on the spectrum”? Of course not. Recently I overheard a woman at a neighboring table in a restaurant exclaim, “Oh my god, I’d certainly like to be on the spectrum so far as Harold is concerned!” It made me smile but made me sad, too. What, is the spectrum now an aspiration, a chic new state of being? That not only trivializes human hurt; it diminishes human language.

We may lament being surrounded by cheapened or lazy language and delude ourselves that we’re not falling for it–yet who among us any longer keeps track of the damage it does? If we—media and populace alike—had refused to adopt the propagandistic, minimizing word “meddle,” but demanded use of vivid, accurate verbs like “manipulate,” “disrupt,” “violate,” or flat-out “attack” our democratic system of elections, would we still be having to convince some people that it’s about to happen again? Meddle!?! Meddling is what a neighbor does when snarkishly pointing out that your roses are about to develop black spot. Meddling is when your aunt “suggests” a better recipe for your Thanksgiving stuffing even though everyone else wolfed down three servings of it. Meddling is not an apt description for trying to destroy another sovereign nation. Has anybody ever declared bombing Pearl Harbor a meddlesome act?

The misuse and abuse of language leads to the misuse and abuse of thought itself. It’s as if our natural resistance to viral language (would that such a resistance exists) has been compromised. For myself, when I feel I’m coming down with a cliché or flushing in a feverish case of jargon, I megadose on my bettors, two great wordsmiths we’ve lost in the past two years: Ursula K. Le Guin, who died in 2018, and Toni Morrison who died last August. Both were 88 years old.

Here are a few passages of comfort and of warning from Ursula’s book Words Are My Matter—Writings About Life and Books.

Take the time to learn how to get the words right. It takes a while to learn how to use words. It takes practice. It takes work, years of work. . . . Truth telling is a great thing, and a rare one. Enjoy it. . . . Hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries— realists of a larger reality.

And here is the majesty of Morrison, from her Nobel Prize for Literature Acceptance Lecture:

The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, midwifery properties, replacing them with menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence, does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux language of mindless media, whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity-driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, . . . it is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language—all are typical of the policing language of mastery and cannot, do not, permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas. Word work is sublime, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our human difference—the way in which we are like no other life. We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

I was privileged to have personally known Le Guin and Morrison both, and I miss their presence on this planet with a chronic ache. But the legacy of language each left behind her endures, a radiance of words, jewels that wait unperturbed for us to open the treasure box where they gleam in the dark.