On Language: A Primer for Careful, Thoughtful Introspection

If words matter–and you’ll find that I am very quick to contend that they do–then we ought to be careful with the language we speak. For some, this point might seem like something akin to an argument against profanity. I’m not (necessarily) out to destroy those with foul mouths–it isn’t my habit, and it is one that I prefer as strong emphasis rather than filler words, but if done with thought and a certain sort of intention behind it, a chosen “swear word” can pack the necessary punch to communicate precisely what was intended. (See here Paul’s use of the word ‘skubala’) Continue reading On Language: A Primer for Careful, Thoughtful Introspection

“Heyyyyyy”: Elongated Vowels and the Alleged Degradation of Language

The way we speak fascinates me, but the way we write is something I’m not sure I’ll ever be done explicitly exploring. It all boils down to forms of communication: in what ways do we convey meaning when we are limited by the internal voices of others? When I write, particularly if we’ve never spoken, you sort of have to assume a great deal about what I’m saying: am I terse, or relaxed? Perhaps I simply want you to get the facts straight, or maybe you should really read into that last thing I just said, alright?

Each time I come across an article decrying the difficulties of written communication, I find myself mentally scoffing. While I admit that text-based conversations or opinions are often more difficult to interpret, I have a sneaking suspicion that if we work harder at it, we’ll be capable of spreading our thoughts more or less as intended, with a degree of accuracy akin to the spoken word.

Even so, text communication is tricky. On the one hand, you’ve got the temptation to slip into some rather strange informal speaking tendencies–duplicating letters, as in the article linked above, or ignoring grammar, as in much of ‘meme speak’–all in the name of sending a simple message. On the other hand–and this is where I tend to lean–you have the temptation to formalize your writing, always attempting to communicate as if you were writing a paper. There’s some leeway there, of course, since the subject matter I deal with in day-to-day IM, e-mail, and texting doesn’t necessitate the sort of high level philosophy that my graduate work does. But the temptation is there, partially because the broader scope of philosophical language allows me to communicate ideas with greater clarity.

I don’t want to overstate that, though. There’s something to be said for the ‘strange informal speaking tendencies.’ For starters, a lot of those tendencies are widely shared; the reason we use that sort of language is because it is understood by others. Further, sometimes our written language simply attempts to reflect its spoken counterpart: sometimes people really do use elongated vowels and say “heyyyyyy,” and our spoken language is often far more informal than the papers you wrote in college (I hope so, anyway, for the sake of your grades, or in my case my friends).

Finally, there’s something to be said about writing in different tones. It’s good that I can write academically when I sit down to hash out some philosophy problem. That may not help me when I’m e-mailing a friend from high school, though, nor will it help if I’m IMing my younger brother. The problem isn’t necessarily with understanding–my brother is a smart guy, though I’m not sure about some of my high school friends–but rather lies with intention: my goal is to talk about what is going on in someone’s life (either his or mine), not debate the existence of minds, or some other such esoteric issue. I should practice both, and perhaps practice other sorts of writing (informal yet professional, professional and formal but not academic, etc.), because I am likely to encounter all of these in my day-to-day life, to some degree or another.

Some suggest that “almost all of our digital communications are total thought garbage, so we get away with the least amount of verbal effort we can.” That makes me sad, though if it is true I suspect it is likely just as true for any of our communications (how much time do we spend gossiping, or talking about other trivial matters?). I suspect we can use our written words to impact the world as much as or more than our spoken words, though it would certainly take a bit of effort.

After all, it was by words that God spoke the universe into existence. The Word became flesh, and we now experience the Word through the recorded words of Scripture. Our responsibility is to think, speak, and write well, whatever medium we may be currently engaging.

Image via Flickr.

When They Don’t Speak Your Language

I have had hack conversations with people learning English, and I myself have butchered foreign languages in order to do something as simple as buying meat from the store. We basically have to throw out all hope of delicate expression and discussion of intentions, getting down to cooperative games of Charades where cheating is the ideal. Being able to communicate (or not) warps my perception of the people I am dealing with, be they middle schoolers or middle aged convenience store owners.

Continue reading When They Don’t Speak Your Language

#OnHashtags

As is often the case, I’ve found myself considering the language we use in our daily lives. As a blogger, it seems only natural to spend a portion of my time considering the written word, but I also communicate with many people by poking at a keyboard: e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, and text messages fill up a good deal of my time. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—I haven’t stopped talking to people in person—but it does give me space to consider our habits in and out of the written word. One strange phenomenon is the hashtag. Continue reading #OnHashtags

God’s Grandeur and Evangelical Nonchalance

Grand language is a rarity these days, not only among bloggers, but also among the politicians and pastors from whom we used to expect it. Culturally, soaring rhetoric is endangered if not extinct.

John McWhorter, for one, has noted this cultural trend. In an interview with Mars Hill Audio in 2003, he locates the loss of formal public language in the U.S in a post-1960s suspicion that lofty rhetoric is detached and untrustworthy. This is problematic for evangelicals, who must attend to the grandeur of God, but are tempted to distance themselves from the speech appropriate to it.

Talking like your culture is hardly blameworthy in itself.  Evangelicals are committed to the accessibility and availability of the gospel: we know that Jesus is for everyone, no matter how rudimentary their vocabulary. We glory in the perspicuity of the things necessary for our salvation. Furthermore, directness of speech may be seen as an admission of God’s transcendence: if all of our language is unworthy, why not speak as simply as possible? Plain and humble words are certainly better than the distractions of convoluted talk; the Lord’s Prayer is a paragon of plainspokenness before God. The Reformers sought to drive home that, thanks to the mediation of Christ, God could be accessed anywhere by any one, not only by those with the “right” language. If there is indeed a priesthood of all believers, then the acceptability of our worship cannot depend on having the right words.

Even so, there are more ‘right words’ available to us than we care to use. We are provided with grand language concerning God in Scripture; such formality sits strangely in the evangelical ethos, however, even when Biblical. I have real suspicions of paraphrase of the Bible into the vernacular when the passage warrants, or even demands, a grand style with which we find ourselves uncomfortable. Some things just don’t paraphrase well. When a pastor tries to evoke the more nuanced or exalted aspects of God, I see the poverty of the commonly-used casual, conversational style. It is somewhat surprising that Evangelicals, with our stout commitment to the value of Scripture as the living word of God, seem unconcerned with whether we acknowledge the full range of language the Scripture writers employ.

It really is a different thing to say “God cares!” than to say “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”  With the soaring adulation of the Davidic Psalms, the theological nuance and resounding rhetorical height of the Pauline Epistles (the beginning of Ephesians 1 and Philippians 2 are striking examples), in Mary’s Magnificat and God’s transcendent promises to Abraham, the language of the Bible evokes true things about our relationship with God – truths about his overawing excellence, because of which our brothers have taken off their shoes, fallen on their faces, bemoaned their uncleanliness, been consumed by fire, or glowed for days after.

Even in translation, the word of God is often a word of grandeur or magnificence – something foreign to an Evangelical vocabulary. We lose much of what is being said or taking place in Scripture when we unyeildingly collapsed it into conversational prose. I worry that our confident casualness of speech prevents our recognizing the grandness of God by practicing grandness in the language about Him – a grandness modeled for us in Scripture. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “God’s Grandeur” describes divine glory as “flam[ing] forth like shining from shook foil” in all the world.  It may be that we – with our language as relaxed as our Hawaiian shirts – dim our understanding of God’s grandeur by avoiding grand language about him. ‘