Human beings are the ultimate tool-using species on this planet, and in this Solar System, it would appear, and yet… all too often our most powerful tool is ignored, minimized, and overlooked. I’m referring to language, the use of words. Without language, our tool-making skills would likely be stuck in the Stone Age, if not before.

Despite its power, it often seems to me that people go out of their way to abuse language. The other night I watched part of the Hundred Year Grammy Celebration of the birth of Frank Sinatra, and listened while a bevy of Grammy Award Winners performed a host of Sinatra’s original arrangements. I came away from what I watched with two impressions. First, none of those talented Grammy artists sang those songs as well as Sinatra had. Second, all of them sounded better singing Sinatra’s arrangements than they did singing what made them successful and popular. Now, that’s just my opinion, but it was so nice to actually hear and understand the words the more “modern” artists were singing.

Why is it that so much modern vocal music effectively degrades the use of words, twisting them and singing them against a melodic cacophony that so often makes it impossible to decipher what they might have been? Or for that matter,even finding the melody line itself [and I can certainly do without high bass volume repetitive percussive abuse]?

But pop music isn’t the only offender. Attorneys, bureaucrats, education administrators, politicians, entertainers, programmers, and even writers, often torture language to the point where it becomes excessively jargon-laden and meaningless.

These days it often seems that the most used aspect of language as a tool is not to communicate ideas, not to educate, not to share emotions or experiences, and not even to entertain, but to persuade people to buy, to buy ideas, goods, propaganda, various religions, and, of course, political candidates. But then, humans are also the ultimate opportunists, and it’s clear that our market-driven culture knows just where the highest value of words lies, and that’s in sales.

So much for the Bard, A Brief History of Time, “The Waste Land,” “Easter 1916,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” or even The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or War and Peace.

7 thoughts on “Words”

  1. Tim says:

    On music, understanding the words is not just a recent issue. Early polyphony had the same problem (until Palestrina) and (I say this with trepidation)- so does a lot of opera!

    1. Opera doesn’t have to be barely intelligible [or even unintelligible]. That’s a matter of training. The vast majority of my wife’s students have intelligible diction. They’re often among the few at competitions who do, but there’s a certain breed of opera “professionals” who prize “the voice” more than understanding the singer, and, in the U.S., since most Americans aren’t fluent in the operatic languages besides English, a lot of singers get away with what amounts to murdering diction of other languages.

  2. RRRea says:

    There was a recent study done in which archaeologists attempted to instruct a novice in the creation of a modern version of an Acheulian hand axe. There was no way to do it with grunts, nor with simplified diction or discourse. To communicate the skill set, you needed to be able to TALK to the apprentice. And Acheulian hand axes are the go-to for Homo erectus. So, depending on how you slice the word “human” language has been with us quite a long time, possibly longer than some would be willing to use the term “human”.

    On the other hand, “The Waste Land” was specifically designed to be opaque and difficult to understand. He treated English like it was Latin in the way he organized his syntax, spliced in important bits in several different languages (including Sanskrit). It can definitely be used as an example of the wonderful things a master can DO with language, but it’s not meant to be simple communication. You have to work for it.

    1. R. Hamilton. says:

      Wanton obscurity: and then there’s James Joyce.

  3. John Prigent says:

    Many years ago a prominent member of our church choir posed the question to a study group: ‘what is the purpose of a church choir?’. My response was ‘to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord”, because it’s usually impossible to tell what the message is with the several groups singing different words over each other’. She didn’t talk to me for weeks afterwards – but the services did improve with the whole choir singing in harmony.

  4. D Archerd says:

    It is certainly true that language is used to deliberately obfuscate meaning – politicians of all stripes, whether public or in private companies do this all the time, in order to be SEEN to be giving a response without actually SAYING anything to which they could later be held to account.

    And it is also true that jargon abounds in nearly every profession. Sometimes this is for baser reasons, e.g. to make it difficult for the uninitiated to comprehend and participate in the conversation, but often because jargon words have very specific meanings in the context of the profession where a word or phrase in more common usage has many or more ambiguous meanings and would thus cause more confusion than the jargon word. And of course jargon grows up as verbal shorthand to save time when speaking or writing the same term or phrase repeatedly. The company I work for runs on “TLA’s” (three-letter acronyms) and I suspect the same holds true for much of the business and technical world.

    However, beyond those tendencies, I agree that language is deteriorating in common usage as spelling and grammatical atrocities are increasingly tolerated due to a variety of factors, including falling standards in public education. Among those falling standards is a tendency to de-emphasize the beauty of language in favor of more “practical” pursuits. My daughter, who graduated from secondary school at the turn of the century, went through four years of English classes without once studying poetry! There was instead a great deal of emphasis on deconstructive literary analysis and on essay writing, both of which were presumed to be more valuable skills for university entrance exams.

    Furthermore, the speed and convenience of mobile communications has led to increased tolerance of errors in spelling and grammar, justified “as long as the meaning is still clear.”

    But there remain publications and media where good writing is still prized, e.g. NPR, The Economist, and Atlantic magazine, to name a few. However, those have limited popular appeal, and as our society continues its current bifurcation into a well-educated and wealthy elite and a majority who are very much less so, the impact on common language that you note can be expected to exacerbate.

  5. Wine Guy says:

    Once again, there is nothing new under the sun. If we think that this ‘new’ use of words hasn’t been happening since the beginning of recorded time (and before that, too), I have this bridge to sell you….

    And music… every generation’s music is criticized by the previous generation.

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