Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The power of language

Sometimes I think that a good chunk of being a "professional" is just learning the jargon of your trade. I'm not trying to minimize the education and dedication that it takes to become a doctor, lawyer or any of the other fields deemed as professional, but it seems that each field has developed its own secret codes.

I noticed it first in graduate school with the language of education. Everybody who's ever watched a medical or legal drama on TV is somewhat aware of its existence. It's everywhere though and not just in the traditional professions. Every field and probably every company, even every organization, has its own catchwords. When I was employment recruiting, keeping up with jargon was a challenge, but a love of language made it a fun part of my job. When I first began training in my current job, sometimes it seemed like I was learning another language. When I mentioned this to one very smart trainer, our next session included a five page vocabulary list that I still carry with me.

It's just a sign of the complexity of our times. Many linguists will tell you that over the last several generations, the vocabulary of the average person has shrunk by several hundred words. Words once regarded as staples of conversation and everyday writing are often unrecognized. Sometimes I think though that this perspective hasn't accommodated the growth of job and hobby specific language. While the shared language may be shrinking, and individuals may not know as many of the older words, the language of subgroups looks like it's growing.

This seems both a gain and a loss to me. Language, being dynamic, evolves. New words and new usages are exciting, but the loss of common ground scares me a little. We already have so many things we can use to separate people from each other. The best writing, to me, has always been that which has made me vicariously experience the honest reality of another's life. It has been the writing in which I could see myself in someone very different, whether that difference was created by time, gender, race, geography, culture, class or some other factors. It hasn't mattered if the writing involved was fact or fiction, or even a tool used as part of another medium. If it was really good, it showed me what I shared with many other people.

The power of language to divide cannot be ignored. I've wondered before how many cultures have versions of the Tower of Babel in their mythology. When man tried to over-reach and build a tower that could take them to heaven, the common language of all man was struck down and suddenly people could no longer understand everyone else. Languages were born. That story has always spoken to me of the power of finding the common ground. I know, of course, that it reflects that man cannot reach God/dess by their own efforts and is a cautionary tale about the pride and presumption of thinking one could be like God/dess. In the Bible, it's also a subtle foreshadowing of the grace that cannot be earned but merely received. It also shows how strong and how powerful we can be when we work together.

That's one of the reasons why despite the gifts that jargon brings, I distrust and dislike it. Jargon, unlike slang, generally works from the top down. In a worst case scenario, it's a classist tool to keep some people uninformed. Like slang, it shows who's on the outside and who's in. It's been said that precise language usage and good grammar are actually signs of elitism, but I couldn't disagree more. A good, clean simple sentence can be the most solid common ground people can find. Look at effect of four short words -- "I have a dream."

I love words, large and small. I love them strung together with grace and rhythm. I love them piled up in masses between stiff covers. More than that, though, I love them when just the right ones are chosen that make people understand. "Le mot juste" (the right word) is actually a tool of love.


Blogger Gannet Girl said...

May I print this out and distribute it to my students? This time I know EXACTLY what you mean.

March 22, 2006 7:21 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

I like the distinctions that Korzybski made among dialects, sociolects, and codes. The distinctions are by both chronological and geographical distribution.I think dialects are essential, sociolects are enriching, and codes are isolating.

March 22, 2006 1:25 PM  
Blogger Theresa Williams said...

I remember the hardest part about my art history classes was learning how to talk about the paintings. There were so many concepts. When all I really wanted to do feel the painting. Let them speak to me. I actually have had that "problem" my whole college life. I dislike jargon most of all.

March 22, 2006 9:53 PM  
Blogger Lisa :-] said...

All I have to say to Paul's comment is, "huh????"

Being a person in love with words who has been involved in an industry that is NOT...I have been sorely frustrated by the "buzz words" popularized and used over and over and over again to express some marketing aspect of the business. Twenty years ago, the company I worked for decided that "exceeding expectations" should be part of their mission statement. And I still hear that by now stale and useless term bandied about by people in the industry trying to sound "with it." Frustrates the hell out of me...

March 23, 2006 1:21 AM  
Blogger Celeste said...

Language is a tool that has been used throughout history to keep the masses separated. It has been used and abused. Ebonics is an example.
As far as Paul's comment, I feel that dialects themselves can be isolating also.

March 23, 2006 6:52 AM  
Blogger Gabreael said...

This post made me go, "Hmm....."


March 23, 2006 6:57 AM  
Blogger TJ said...

I guess language is the key and for some a tool for others a weapon.

March 23, 2006 2:41 PM  
Blogger Paula said...

Really interesting post, Cynthia! I had several different reactions to different parts of it. One thing I thought of related to the jargon of different trades brought me back to when I was in art school learning the "trade" of signpainting--there were a lot of jokes that went around, basically puns, like "Why aren't signpainters ever invited to dances?" "Because they're always cutting in!" It makes me laugh out loud, but you'd have to know that "cutting in" is a specific technique where you paint the space around the letters rather painting the letters themselves. Silly, but I loved that the craft I was learning was appreciative of language even if it wasn't a "writing" profession.
Anyway, one of those comments that might not make sense to anyone else, but I really did appreciate this post on a lot of different levels...and it seems to have hit home with a lot of folks!

March 23, 2006 9:16 PM  
Anonymous Ed Kohler said...

Great post. I think participating in online forums and blogs is one of the best ways to get up to speed on an industry's jargon.

March 24, 2006 2:20 PM  

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