Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Language Lives, It's The Communication That Is Dying

In order for communication to happen the ideas which a speaker has attached to the words he's using ought to be the same as those attached by the hearer lest they think they're communicating when in actuality they're not.  And since communication is a key element for a functional civilized society, it only follows that the lack of it would mean it's lets functional and civilized.

I have discovered that there are quite a few words that have a habit of transforming between mouth and ear; so many in fact that it has become obvious that I live in a culture suffering from a language problem that may perhaps eventually rival the Biblical account of the Tower of Babel.

The point of this post is not to make the case myself that the West is suffering in communicating ideas, but rather to point out that there are others much smarter than myself who have been claiming the same thing for some time.  Below are some excerpts from some well-known writers who have gotten the same sense of things.

The first comes from the book,  "The Road To Serfdom" written by F. A. Hayek. Having lived through a society that had descended into Nazism once, he noted that the same things appeared to him to be happening again.  This fact helps to make his observations a little more compelling I believe.  He makes the following point in his introduction:
... [H]istory never quite repeats itself, and just because no development is inevitable, we can in measure learn from the past to avoid repetition of the same process. One need not be a prophet to be aware of impending dangers. 'And accidental combination of experience and interest will often reveal events to one man under aspects which few yet see. The following pages are the product of an experience as near as possible to twice living though the same period... While this is an experience one is not likely to gain in one country, it may in certain circumstances be acquired by living in turn for long periods in different countries. ...Thus, by moving from one country to another, one may sometimes twice watch similar phases of intellectual development. The senses have then become peculiarly acute. When one hears for a second time opinions expressed or measures advocated which one has first met twenty or twenty-five years ago they assume a new meaning as symptoms of a definite trend. It is necessary now to state the unpalatable truth that it is Germany whose fate we are in some danger of repeating.
He also had this to say on Page 174:
The people are made to transfer their allegiance from the old gods to the new under the pretense that the new gods really are what their sound instinct had always told them but what before they had only dimly seen. And most efficient technique to this end is to use the old words but change their meaning.
And continuing on page 175:

If one has not one’s self experienced this process, it is difficult to appreciate the magnitude of this change of the meaning of words, the confusion which it causes, and the barriers to any rational discussion which it creates. It has to be seen to be understood how, if one of two brothers embraces the new faith, after a short while he appears to speak a different language which makes any real communication between them impossible. And the confusion becomes worse because this change of meaning of the words describing political ideals is not a single event but a continuous process, a technique employed consciously or unconsciously to direct the people. Gradually, as this process continues, the whole language becomes despoiled, and words become empty shells deprived of any definite meaning, as capable of denoting one thing as its opposite and used solely for the emotional association which still adhere to them.
From Gresham Machen, we get this insight as early as 1925 in "What Is Faith":
"It makes very little difference how much or how little of the creeds of the Church the Modernist preacher affirms... He might affirm every jot and tittle of the Westminster Confession, for example, and yet be separated by a great gulf from the Reformed Faith. It is not that part is denied and the rest affirmed; but all is denied, because all is affirmed merely as useful or symbolic and not as true."
Later in the mid-twentieth century, we see Francis Schaeffer complaining of virtually the same thing. In his book "Escape From Reason"  he points out that the parental communication being used to pass the Gospel along to the next generation is being retranslated by the "thought forms" that had been established by popular culture, media and the institutions of education:
"The reason we often cannot speak to our children, let alone other people's, is because we have never taken time to understand how different their thought-forms are from ours. Through Reading and education and the whole modern cultural bombardment of mass media, even today's middle-class children are becoming thoroughly twentieth-century in outlook. In crucial areas many Christian parents, ministers and teachers are as out of touch with many of the children of the church, and the majority of those outside, as though they were speaking a foreign language.
So what is said in this book is not merely a matter of intellectual debate. It is not of interest only to academics. It is utterly crucial for those of us who are serious about communicating the Christian gospel in the twentieth century"
And more recently yet we have John Piper who adds an interesting thought to this idea of language. He says that relativism allows one to conceal his heresies by confused language. He has this to say on page 109 of "Don't Waste Your Life:

One of the most tragic effects of relativism is the effect it has on language. In a culture where truth is esteemed as something objective and external and valuable, language holds the honorable place of expressing and transmitting that precious cargo of truth. In fact, a person's use of language is assessed on the basis of whether it corresponds to the truth of the reality the expresses.

But when objective truth vanishes in the fog of relativism, the role of language changes. dramatically. It's no longer a humble servant for carrying precious truth. Now it throws off the yoke of servanthood and takes on a power of its own. It doesn't submit to objective, external reality; it creates its own reality. It no longer serves to display truth. Now it seeks to obtain the preferences of the speaker.

This gives rise to every manner of spin. The goal of language is no longer the communication of reality but the manipulation of reality. It non longer functions in the glorious capacity of affirming the embrace of truth, but now it functions in the devious capacity of concealing defection from the truth"
In the grand scope of history, I get the sense that this is a new thing, perhaps brought to us by the enlightenment.  The oldest excerpt is nearly a century old and yet I get no sense from today's average communicators of the Gospel, which would include pastors, but more importantly includes parents, that a problem even exists.  But even if there was an awareness that the ideas being communicated from the pulpit and by parents were being retranslated in mid-air, the solutions to this problem go much deeper than simply defining terms because the words used even to define other words are intertwined with deep-seated ideals, belief systems and worldviews.

My sense of this reality is keen. While on the one hand I am relieved to discover that my experience on this matter is not new, on the other hand, I find it increasingly difficult to have, not only civil discourse but discourse period. It's good enough that we come to the table I suppose, but overcoming the fact that occupying the same space does not equal living in the same world when it comes to the ideas transmitted by our language, seems to be an insurmountable challenge.  For an English speaker to learn French is something that can be achieved.  He has merely to learn new sounds for old meanings.  But learning new meanings for old sounds, and escaping the worldview with which the common language is intertwined in order to understand and communicate with another, is a much more difficult task.

Languages have died, to be sure.  But I'm not sure if a language has ever survived while the ideas that were conveyed by them died. Guttenberg may have done much to freeze words, but the printed word is powerless when it comes to freezing the meanings attached to them.  It is apparent to me, if at all possible, that we should become bilingual, as it were, as much as we're able to, so that we might continue to communicate the Gospel of peace to a world in desperate need of it, but more importantly yet, so that we might be able to communicate it to our own children. 


Stan said...

You know I share your deep concern for the shifting meaning of words and the demise of the language. Too many concepts no longer have words to suit them. It's starting to seem like a conspiracy. Indeed, I suspect it is, except that it's a satanic one.

Susan said...

I agree with Stan's comment and your blog piece. We MUST try and get back to true as it was conveyed many years ago. Therefore my love of older books, such as CHRISTIAN PERFECTION by Francois de Salignac de La Mothe Felelon who lived 6 August 1651 - 7 January 1715. I can only digest a brief page of his writing at a time to TRY and understand the DEPTH because we, in my opinion, live in such a shallow world.