Language evolves, expanding and economizing, and devolves, erasing distinctions and richness
Loose lips sink ships! When Nazi submarines preyed on Atlantic convoys, security measures took on new urgency. Gossip could lead to disaster.
Today loose language, though not an impending disaster, is a debilitating phenomenon. I suggest that we “call it out.”
When it comes to monitoring language, there is an ongoing war between prescriptivists and descriptivists. The former run a tight ship: There are rules and keep them we must! The latter prefer to catch the prevailing winds and record where they take us.
Which school wins the debate? Neither. Language evolves, and descriptivists rightly chart its path. But language also devolves, and this raises a red flag that prescriptivists are more likely to see.
What, then, counts as evolution? What counts as devolution? Now is not the time for a treatise on linguistic growth or linguistic decay. But I can offer helpful criteria for serviceable diagnosis.
Evolution brings us an expanded vocabulary (think of the language of the digital domain). Evolution is economical (think of the shift from “Your most obedient and humble servant” to “Regards”).
Devolution erodes vocabulary (“substance” becomes archaic while “illegal substances” carries the day). It erases distinctions (“ladies and gentlemen” become “guys”). Devolution erodes the richness of reference and gives way to handy “tags” (think of the shift from “Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim” to “faith-community”).
Sometimes devolution is especially dangerous. Let’s start with the concept of culture. It’s important to distinguish between high-culture and pop culture. Of late, the Arts section of the New York Times either can’t or won’t, and so it erases the distinction between beauty and bounce. My liberal arts college claimed a special culture despite its being too small and too derivative to be more than, say, a tone. When we fail to identify our culture, we are set adrift.
So what is a culture? It is in the conceptual neighborhood of a civilization but is not itself the arbiter of the human spirit. We might think of it as the expression of the human spirit across the range of science, art, and politics. We might well reflect on what it means to evangelize our own culture.
Next comes the concept of community. The millions of Latinos in Los Angeles are far too many and disparate to be a community. They constitute a demographic. In contrast, reports of an Inglewood tattoo community are suspect if only because its denizens are few and transient. They constitute a clientele.
So what is a community? It involves the pursuit of a shared good, and it takes us beyond a convergence of private interests. A community is an alliance of persons who share a unified pattern of activities and a reflective pursuit of a common good.
There are times, to be sure, when the devolution of language is a mere annoyance. Last week I was late in reordering checks for my very infirm brother. The local bank gave me a number to call since my brother isn’t mobile enough to make it to the bank. He vouched for me on the phone. But what about the interim checks to hold him over for a couple of weeks? Ah, my brother would have to visit the bank for those. Catch 22! “I do apologize,” said the clerk. But she didn’t budge. Was she was apologizing for what she continued to do? A hollow apology indeed. Was she apologizing for the bank’s policy? Why? She’s not responsible for the policy. My best guess is that “I apologize” was a verbal spray used to smooth over a bureaucratic bungle. If so, the world has become a bit less sincere and a bit more mendacious. Lord, forgive us our sins, deliberate and indeliberate.