Bill Bryson’s book The Mother Tongue tells the story of the evolution of English, beginning with a chapter called “The Dawn of Language.” He discusses many instances in which language has been a part of war, most notably when an invading culture wants to stamp out an indigenous one.
It’s not misguided to target language in such situations. Reality is shaped by language. Through it, we teach each other how to think, what exists and what doesn’t. Wipe out a language and you wipe out a way of seeing the world. And yet, the fact that languages evolve and borrow from each other is not a tragedy. Our way of seeing the world must evolve, and allowing it to be influenced by other ways of seeing is part of fully and responsibly being in the world.
Even if we haven’t been a member of a linguistic minority against a brutal invading force, all of us can likely understand language wars on some level. We’re living through a culture war in which language is a prominent focus. And in recent decades, corporate culture has been something of an invading force, with its rules of grammar and vocabulary: Despite the fact that English teachers still preach against the use of passive voice, note the increasing prominence of corporate speak in phrases such as, “It was decided that….” to indicate that everyone and no one made a decision, so everyone and no one is responsible.
My sense would have been that attempts to stamp out language using brutal force are bound to fail, as are attempts to preserve it, that language evolves naturally, and little can truly interfere with that. But Bryson’s book seems to indicate otherwise. Attempts to stamp out language have been remarkably successful in many places. Though perhaps that is pessimistic of me. Perhaps I ought to say that it is remarkable, instead, that pockets of Breton, Gaelic and Guarani still exist.
It gives me reason to consider the extent to which my own use of language is influenced by various cultural forces that act upon and within my reality: corporate America, the counseling profession, etc. Do I really want to say that something “was decided,” sans subject? Do I want to describe someone as having “coping skills” or “some Axis II issues?” Wouldn’t I so much rather borrow words from Mary Oliver to say that my job is to “stride deeper and deeper into the world?” That the thought that troubled me awake this morning was “a difficult guest with a single tune?” Can’t I describe the state of a person’s life and way of being infinitely better if I stay away from the lazy word “depression?” Can’t I fight off the more pernicious aspects of these invading forces with the exceedingly simple weapon of awareness?