lenten journal: what language shall I borrow?


    Marco Werman, the anchor for The World, said, “texted” in a sentence as the past tense of the verb “to text.” Though I’ve come to terms with the transition “text” has made form noun to verb (notice I didn’t say, “transitioned”), I’ve struggled with how to speak of texting in the past tense. It rolls off the tongue like a grammatical mistake, an expression of miseducation, a triumph of convenience over thoughtful expression. I have worked hard not capitulate, choosing instead to say, “I sent you a text message,” hoping I could keep English from yet another assault of verbiating.
    And there it was. On NPR, no less.

    We Americans, the champions of expediency, have less and less need for verbs it seems. We find it easier to simply put nouns in their place. We friend each other on Facebook (“friended”?), where once we became friends with one another. Perhaps the one that gets me most is hearing people speaking of “gifting” something to another. What’s wrong with giving?

    Catching up on other NPR stories I missed, I found this one on new books for language lovers a bit later and a review of The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language by John McWhorter.

    John McWhorter, who specializes in linguistic change, takes us across dozens of tongues and thousands of years, even speculating about the first human speech. We learn the process that turned the Romans’ femina (woman) into the modern French femme, shedding two syllables and even changing vowel sounds. But it’s not all erosion and wearing down. McWhorter also shows how words can become more complicated over time, explaining, for example, where Italian verb endings came from. Seeing numerous languages laid out over history gives a valuable pause for those who mutter about decline. Languages don’t decline; they change. Getting too attached to one moment in time is like getting too invested in the position of the goo in a lava lamp, McWhorter says. You can be bitter watching them shift, or you can be absorbed by the beauty in the process.

    I’m sure he texted people who had friended all day, once he heard his book would be impacted by a review.

    Reading the last couple of sentences caused me to smile at myself: “Getting too attached to one moment in time is like getting too invested in the position of the goo in a lava lamp.” The English I’m fighting for is a bastardized version to those a generation or two before me. As the speed of life accelerates, circumstances change faster than vocabulary. I’m blogging, after all – and even as I write, my spell checker doesn’t know what to do with that verb.

    In semi-related semantic news, David Brooks had a great editorial in the New York Times this week on the quotidian role poetry plays in our lives.

    To be aware of the central role metaphors play is to be aware of how imprecise our most important thinking is. It’s to be aware of the constant need to question metaphors with data — to separate the living from the dead ones, and the authentic metaphors that seek to illuminate the world from the tinny advertising and political metaphors that seek to manipulate it. 

    Most important, being aware of metaphors reminds you of the central role that poetic skills play in our thought. If much of our thinking is shaped and driven by metaphor, then the skilled thinker will be able to recognize patterns, blend patterns, apprehend the relationships and pursue unexpected likenesses. 

    Even the hardest of the sciences depend on a foundation of metaphors. To be aware of metaphors is to be humbled by the complexity of the world, to realize that deep in the undercurrents of thought there are thousands of lenses popping up between us and the world, and that we’re surrounded at all times by what Steven Pinker of Harvard once called “pedestrian poetry.”

    Sometimes our language changes out of laziness, sometimes out of creativity, sometimes out of necessity. I saw a video clip of Ken Burns talking about the impact the Civil War had on one particular phrase. Before the war, he said, Americans said, “The United States are,” seeing themselves as loosely connected units. After the war, Americans began to say, “The United States is . . . .” The conflict that almost destroyed us made us realize we were inextricably connected.

    “Languages don’t decline; they change . . . . You can be bitter watching them shift, or you can be absorbed by the beauty in the process,” says John McWhorter. The way I best understand what he’s saying is to read his words about language as metaphor for faith. Our idea of who God is and what God can do in and through us changes as we learn more about the world around us. The world is not the same as it was during Lent last year, much less two thousand years ago when Jesus was walking around. Most of us wrestle with some of his metaphors and miracles because we don’t keep sheep or know much about leprosy first hand. Some of the issues we face in our world today were not even on the table when Jesus broke bread with his disciples. The world has changed. Our faith has changed. God has changed. Our choices are to fight the change as though it were a threat or to allow ourselves to be absorbed in the process of God’s continuing revelation and redemption.

    Change is in the DNA of the universe, in the very core of our Creator.

    And I still don’t want to say, “texted.”



    1. Milton, this is an excellent exploration of a challenging topic. I, too, recoil from what I perceive as the “decline” of the English language. The image of the shifting lava lamp shapes helps a bit, but I still cringe at the word “impacted” (since all I can picture then are sore teeth!). And I refuse to say “texted”, as well. If that makes me a linguistic dinosaur, so be it. Language shapes us and our understanding of the world. I don’t like to see it trivialized.

      I need to read McWhorter’s book and learn how to “be absorbed by the beauty in the process” since I am not keen on change for its own sake. Even though I know it’s built into God’s plan, I struggle with it. Thanks for a thoughtful reflection.

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