Language is losing its effectiveness, according to a recent article.
“In the past 50 years, by one reckoning, the working vocabulary of the average 14-year-old has declined from 25,000 words to 10,000,” wrote David Orr in the July-August issue of Utne Reader. “This is a decline not merely in words, but also in the capacity to think. We are losing the capacity to say what we mean, and ultimately to think about what we mean.”
Orr cited four reasons for the loss of effective language use:
1. Growing industrial and technological societies fail to appreciate “clear, artful language.”
2. These same societies produce experts whose infiltrating jargon “is useful for describing fragments of the world, but not for describing how they fit into a coherent whole.”
3. Language mirrors experience, and since human experience is now “rendered artificial and prepackaged,” language itself is necessarily weakened.
4. Knowledge of a “common literature” (e.g. the Bible, the “classics”) is in decline.
“Language is being whittled down to the dimensions of the global economy and homogenized to accord with the ‘information age.’ This represents a loss of cultural information, a blurring of our capacity to understand the world and our place in it,” wrote Orr.
An emphasis on science and technology results in the reduction of language “to the level of utility, function and management,” wrote Orr. The capacity of language to influence the human spirit is lost.
In light of this language loss, Orr proposed five measures to reverse the trend:
–Talk directly to each other when possible (i.e. avoid answering machines, etc.).
–Increase opportunities for public readings, where a love of language is fostered.
–Demand an account of “those who corrupt language” (e.g. advertisers).
–Protect the vernacular and resist the imposition of a homogenized language.
–Prioritize the “integrity and clarity” of language in education.
“We are never better than when we use words clearly, eloquently, and civilly,” wrote Orr. “If we intend to protect and enhance our humanity, we must first protect and enhance language and fight anything that undermines and cheapens it.”
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s project coordinator.