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General Interest

MANGLING THE LANGUAGE

Ever wonder what possesses people to invent meaningless words or assign old ones a few new and ambiguous meanings? What’s the motivation there? The English language has no shortage of words, up from the 50 to 60 thousand in the original Old English to over half a million words and counting today. Adding new words is no new phenomenon, merely the logical results of technical progress, incorporation of foreign words and a determination to ensure language is used as precisely and clearly as possible.

That whole precision and clarity deal is the reason for written language in the first place, since oral traditions seem to be rife with dragons, people talking to Gods and ghosts, talking animals that change shape at will and the loss of knowledge on how to build pyramids without steam shovels, hydraulic cranes and bulldozers. Seems those squiggly lines, birds and moon-walking stick figures in Egyptian hieroglyphics never fully explained how they built all those giant structures, or why they didn’t use their marvelous engineering skills to benefit anybody but dead kings. That last bit of information might have given us a valuable insight into their seemingly curious mind set.

So alphabets and languages were invented, along with number symbols and mathematics to keep track of stuff we are likely to either forget or hopelessly distort though the generations. Men’s precise words, their intentions, their discoveries, impressions and calculations could now be passed down verbatim. While early on a lot of writing was merely transcribing the oral traditions that had been hopelessly embellished through the centuries by fabulists and God freaks, at least once they were written down no one else could add their own two cents in the form of giant one-eyed pigs that made war on mankind but were defeated by a golden turtle and a beautiful 6 inch-tall maiden. At least in theory, anyway. Written language hasn’t really stopped the flow of invented history, merely made it subject to fact-checking and serious doubts.

But once written language took hold, if you wanted to know about Julius Caesar’s wars you could read the books he himself wrote in his own words and at the time these events occurred, not many centuries and countless embellishments later. His books contained his own accounts of his campaigns, detailing his own thoughts and impressions, with a lucid and unchangeable narrative, as opposed to Homer writing down the almost psychedelic fantastical folk lore about Ancient Greece’s Trojan War with its impossible heroes, impishly vengeful Gods and epic tales of romance. Archaeologists have confirmed that this was a war that actually took place, but the factual recounting of its causes and the actual war itself is impossible thanks to oral traditions. Luckily for us, at this point in history with a half million word vocabulary at our disposal, it is far more difficult to distort facts and actual occurrences.

But not impossible. And humans, being the endlessly inventive and mischievous creatures that we are, can’t help ourselves when it come to mangling our language, mostly for personal gain. It seems we’re still not out of the woods (and caves) evolution-wise and cannot refrain from trying to monopolize the most desirable hunting grounds. And if distorting the language is what it takes, well, so be it. That wolf in sheep’s clothing was always a man, fairy tales to the contrary notwithstanding. Perhaps the whole reason for fairy tales was the limited vocabulary of their day and they were meant more as allegories for human behavior than mere whimsy. A recurring theme in fairy tales (the only theme?) is deception, and human efforts to see through the blatant distortions of reality. Little Red Riding Hood? Even as tiny children we wanted to slap her silly for mistaking a wolf for granny, no matter how damned ugly her grandmother might have been.

Creatures of nature that we are, we have absorbed the practical uses of camouflage from the leopard and the tiger, the zebra and okapi, the insect and the peacock spreading its plumage trying desperately to either appear much larger to discourage predators or seem extra handsome to get a date. Does the fish that resembles a piece of coral apologize to its prey? Does the chameleon regret fooling it predators by appearing to be part of a twig? Hell, no! So why not distort our own language? Ought we feel guilty for resorting to subterfuge? Those half a million words, while providing a wonderfully broad platform to practice clarity, have also provided us the means to avoid clarity. Anyone who has ever had the fortitude to read an entire legal document can verify the words of Tom Waits: “The large print giveth and the small print taketh away.”

So, without providing any of the myriad examples of truth twisting while appearing to be truth telling (fill in your own dubious favorites here), let us admit that, in the words of the immortal Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” So, the task before us is to detect the leopard’s spots and gauge the actual size of the peacock. Also, to shed our own camouflage spots and stripes and try not to flaunt our own plumage excessively, for the gift of having a way with words is a razor-sharp, double-edged sword. The ability to elucidate can easily be used to deceive. And the ability to deceive others seems to infect the deceivers as well, so that eventually their own lies seem not like lies at all, more like an alternative explanation of the truth. There are no alternative explanations to facts, no matter how well phrased or entertaining. The sky will always be blue and no will always mean no. To pretend otherwise might have been fun for Homer and make for great epic poetry, but poetic license, as it so obviously states, is for poets. Aspiring historians, scientists and scholars need not apply.

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