Language, Perception & Diversity


In Genesis 11, the building of the Tower of Babel is represented as the result of human organization facilitated by a single language.  The tower itself is an ideal representation of written language: made of many small parts carefully assembled into a structure that encourages further construction and reveals complexity through an increasingly elevated perspective developed over time. In the Biblical story, Jehovah’s fear is that humanity will be able to achieve whatever it imagines and this prompts him to prevent this by creating a confusion of many languages:
Genesis 11:5- 9  “And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.”

And we might think Jehovah was right. After all, look at what we’ve achieved without a single unifying language: from cuneiform to the Cassini-Huygens Mission, humanity has advanced through a shrinking galaxy of about 7000 languages. But it is a single, shared language that is represented in this story as the key to high human achievement and some believe this today.

I used to believe in the deliberate promotion of English as “the” global language until a student essay took issue with my assertion and made a good argument against it. In a nutshell, my student noted that diversity of language is important for maintaining the broadest possible understanding of our world. He argued that if we had a single global language like the 1500-word “Globish” being promoted today, even if other languages were permitted, the dominant language would naturally drown out and eventually replace them. Diversity of linguistic expression may be as important for human knowledge as biological diversity is for promoting maximum health in an ecosystem.

In The Wall Street Journal “Lost in Translation” by Lera Boroditsky reviews the question of linguistic diversity along with recent cognitive research that indicates a profound connection between language and perception. That our language shapes the way we understand the world seems obvious, but this tenet has been resisted and rejected over the years mostly, Boroditsky claims, due to the influence of Chomsky’s “universal grammar” theory which dismisses differences in languages as insignificant. Boroditsky’s article is full of interesting tidbits about linguistic differences such as various conceptions of “space, time and causality” that demonstrate how profoundly language can shape perception. To explore these differences can only expand our understanding, and so it behooves us to resist any homogenizing force that would eliminate or obscure them.

One linguist who challenges Chomsky’s theory is Dan Everett whose work with the Brazilian Piraha is outlined in “The Interpreter” by John Colapinto in The New Yorker. Unlike our number-obsessed culture with its innumerable systems of measurement, the Piraha only have three quantity words: one, two and many. It only takes a moment to imagine the vast cultural differences we would experience with such a counting system.

With a simple and loose “one, two, many” system of counting, we may have never been able to achieve the $35 laptop recently unveiled by the Indian government, but that may actually be a good thing. Such a heresy might need some extensive defense, so before I’m tied to the stake the short version of my concern is this: the $35 laptop could easily be the same kind of homogenizing force that a single global language would, even if it is used with a variety of languages. As much as I love my Mac and spend hours online, using a computer is just one of many ways of knowing and it has its limits.

The problems of homogenized thinking and experience are just one of several relevant ideas that Aldous Huxley explores in Brave New World where people are cloned, conditioned to hate reading, repeat simplistic slogans and fear nature and natural experience – sound familiar? We can get a glimpse of his insight into the question in chapter 8 in a scene where John Savage is being taught by old Mitsima, an elder on the reservation: ” ‘First of all,’ said Mitsima, taking a lump of wetted clay between his hands, ‘we make a little moon’…Slowly and unskillfully he imitated the old man’s delicate gestures…to fashion to give form, to feel his fingers gaining in skill and power – this gave him an extraordinary pleasure…they worked all day, and the day was filled with an intense, absorbing happiness.”

Language Erosion & Our Reference Books


image credit: Colin Galbraith

I recall when my father, a man of limited means, brought a copy of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary into our house. The old man knew I had academic promise and such a book, I’m sure he was told, would help me get ahead. I recall the reference book that survived to accompany me to college, sitting on top of the ancient, rumbling GE refrigerator.  My paws were only to be on it when I was doing school work. Hardbound books were expensive.

Of course, I stretched out the time I spent doing homework to leaf through the dictionary’s bible-paper pages, learning new words and the black-and-white drawings of everything from magnetos to Piltdown Man. That habit remains with me, as does the wonderful dictionary.   When I write, I often think “my God. I’m made of words. They are my surest companions.” If the office caught fire, I’d grab three things, in this order: the photo of my wife, the laptop, and the old dictionary. As I age, I find myself clinging to linguistic habits that, at times and to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, seem to be shards shored up against the ruin of our shallow times when language gets twisted to venal ends and louts shout into radio microphones.

The old book taught me a new lesson last week, while I was trying to find a precise  definition for the loan-word “métier.” My enormous copy of the American Heritage Dictionary lacked the term.  I turned to dad’s old standby and there it was, with enough context for me to employ the word properly.

Sven Birkerts, in his magisterial and sad work The Gutenberg Elegies, noted one of the effects of networked communications on our habits of language, self, and history. In all cases Birkerts sees a flattening of perspectives, a loss of nuance, and an erosion of propriety. I find that a bit prudish–I am a blogger, a smartass, and user of virtual worlds–but I will agree that nuance helps us to shape utterance to meaning. Without a good vocabulary, we exist in a semantic cage.

When I finished my M.A., my parents made the long drive to Bloomington, Indiana to attend the commencement. They asked what I wanted as a present, and I didn’t hesitate: another hardbound dictionary. We got an updated version of the New Collegiate at the IU Bookstore, and it too lives with me. When one of my great-nephews or nieces goes to college, if he or she is like me and as likely to consult paper as well as pixels, I’ll send that newer edition along.

That’s a ways off, so the older copy will have a vacation at a bindery soon, to get the spine repaired and perhaps a new library binding. It should then last the rest of my days on this planet, a constant touchstone for my life, if only to see what time does to our language.

Alphabetic Literacy & Thought: Tactile Insights

Braille smallest

A recent interview of reporter Rachel Aviv during the radio program “On The Media” makes some interesting connections to the thinking of Walter Ong and reveals some insights from the blind regarding the significant impact of alphabetic literacy on human thinking. Digital audio technologies continue to develop for the assistance of the blind so Braille seems no longer necessary, but this may be an illusion. Because it is based on the alphabet, Braille seems to have the a greater capacity for promoting intellectual complexity than simply listening to speech.

The oft-quoted observation of Marshall McLuhan that “the medium is the message” is usually applied to electronic technologies, but it is the medium of the almighty alphabet that has had the greatest impact on our consciousness – both positive and negative.

Ong reminds us in Orality and Literacy that “more than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness” and he notes how it freed the human mind from the mnemonic exercises of oral tradition and allowed humans to develop more complex and abstract thought via the alphabet. The alphabet, along with a few phonetic symbols, is capable of representing any speech sound a human might make, but its use for organizing and improving our thinking through writing is its greatest power. By externalizing our thoughts in writing we can more easily revise them and develop their sophistication and complexity. This leads, as we are experiencing, to ever more complex thoughts and technologies.

In her NYT Magazine article “Listening to Braille” Rachel Aviv cites recent studies that seem to verify the complexity-building impact of alphabetic literacy. In a study of two groups of blind children where one group learned Braille for reading and the other used digital audio, the audio only “readers” were less organized in their thinking and their thoughts were less complex.  Unlike strictly oral communication and aural reception of information, alphabetic literacy allows us to easily draft, develop and edit our thoughts in ever more sophisticated ways. Through Braille, alphabetic literacy can stimulate the visual cortex of the blind as Aviv notes regarding a series of studies done in the 1990’s demonstrating that “the visual cortices of the blind are not rendered useless, as previously assumed. When test subjects swept their fingers over a line of Braille, they showed intense activation in the parts of the brain that typically process visual input.”

As the digital age continues to transform human communication, in spite of our many new options, we are beginning to see the essential nature of a strong alphabetic literacy for maximum intellectual development. And, to further maximize our intellectual potential we must also know the limits of this most powerful tool. In Understanding Media McLuhan discusses some of the overlooked limitations that alphabetic literacy brings with it and notes the homogenizing influence of “typographic principles of uniformity, continuity and lineality.” (27) We need to cultivate our alphabetic capabilities without being blinded and trapped by them for, as McLuhan notes, there is “nothing lineal and sequential” in any moment of human consciousness – the lineal and sequential are the impositions (or the scars) of the almighty alphabet. As Emerson reminds us in his “American Scholar” graduation address, “Man Thinking must not be subdued by his instruments.”

Language on the Skids: Planet Biscotti Goddess


Admittedly, unlike the cartoon (taken from UPenn’s Language Log blog) this post is tepid stuff. I find myself, by inclination a descriptivist about propriety in language, vexed by the overuse of “goddess” and “planet” and even “club.”

Each of these words has been debased and lost some of its grandeur by their use in marketing.

This screed of mine began as I looked across the desk, delaying grading student work, when my eyes lighted on the box of biscotti I’d picked up at Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market, my favorite place to shop. The brand, Biscotti Goddess, appears at the local coffee shop and I’m fond of them.

I’m not fond of the name. Deities, even heathen ones, or especially those, merit some respect.  I’d say “Biscotti Diva” except I’d be falling into the same trap.

My concern with using such signifiers this way comes from the ability to suck the life from what they signify.  If you look up “weasel word” in Wikipedia, you’ll see that the term comes from how an actual weasel empties an egg that still appears intact.

And thus with language. Almost time for Planet Lunch!

e.g. i.e. etc. What to do?

Defending the Empire

A reader who uses our Writer’s Web online handbook contacted me concerning my use of “ex.” before an example of correct usage:

 I was of the belief that the correct way to abbreviate "example" was, in fact, e.g., (preceded and followed by a comma), then the example itself.

I realize that the English language is ever-evolving and Latin is considered by many a dead language, but there are a number of other credible sources that still show exempli gratia in its abbreviated form as being the correct expression to use when providing an example.

Thank you for an otherwise valuable resource for the finer points of written English.

Dear Reader:

Language is indeed changing; what is “correct” today will be forgotten tomorrow. No cohort of academics can stem the tide.  Language policies are, at best, like Hadrian’s Wall: it cut off intruders who managed to slip over, so their small bands could be easily wiped out.  On the safe side of the Wall lay the Roman civitates, unarmed and peacefully doing the business of Empire.

Yet no Wall–Hadrian’s included–could withstand a mass onslaught. That is, indeed, what new media, and before it, television and radio have done to formal English.

To your questions: for the sake of modernity, I’m going to retain “ex.” in my examples. For the sake of clarity, however, I won’t abbreviate it. All “ex.” instances will become “example” since the abbreviation might be misconstrued as “former.”

Let us be Stoic about this, as Marcus Aurelius did in the face of change. As he so wisely put it, “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

With this in mind, I teach writers to appeal to their readers. While a few well educated readers like yourself will be offended by my modern usage, in a few years no student I teach–at a selective liberal-arts university–will ever use “i.e.” or “e.g.” or “op cit.” or “idib.” except when writing a paper using the Chicago Manual of Style. Even that will be fleeting as fame and earthly treasures were in Aurelius’ estimation. I do not believe that the “paper” as we know it will even exist in a generation. Multimedia projects will replace it.

Ars Rhetorica will survive this change, as it did when Socrates lamented that his follower Phaedrus would recall nothing important during the arrival of that pesky new technology called writing. Had Socrates’ idea prevailed, would the Romans have plundered–I mean, appropriated–what they did from Athens’ rich heritage?

Take heart! Even as our old Roman stalwarts vanish into the linguistic sunset, the dogged centurion “Etc.” will, however, limp along, often misspelled “Ect.” Its original will remain as meaningful to modern readers (we bloggers do still read) as, exempli gratia, a Roman gladius would against a British Centurion tank.

Once I saw the need to hold some sort of line against language change. No longer, except when students veer into contemporary slang (much of it on the way to becoming formal English). Seeing the following changes in formal academic prose, for instance, I no longer penalize students for contractions or the use of “center around.” These both pained me at various times in my academic career. Now I’ve just moved along since, as Aurelius reminds us, “Every man’s life lies within the present; for the past is spent and done with, and the future is uncertain.”