If every language is shaped by the culture that uses it, then it would be bad news for English and other languages if we are living in a “culture of death,” as Pope John Paul II named it in Evangelium Vitae. A culture of death will do damage to whatever is true, good and beautiful already existing in that culture. One asset and expression of a culture is its language. In the language we will find the heritage and history of that culture.
Every culture has a ‘voice,’ a way that it sounds. My premise is that the modern voice is irreverent, disrespectful, lewd and inexact. And, speaking of inexact, I’m aware that generalizations are always sensational, as Chesterton says. For everything that I say, there are many exceptions. But here I go anyway.
The other day I read, “The Lord’s Prayer is the most perfect of all prayers . . . This prayer teaches us not only to ask for things, but also in what order we should desire them” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, as quoted in Navarre Bible, Commentary on Matt. 6: 1-18). I don’t think I had come across that idea of the sequence of this prayer being important before, but here it is, and it’s St. Thomas Aquinas. So, in the pole position is the request is that God’s name be respected as holy: “hallowed be thy name.” That’s just like the Commandment to not use God’s name without reason: “Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain.”
Previously (recently, even), in keeping with our culture’s Judeo-Christian roots, nobody mentioned God or Jesus in an offhand and unconscious manner. To do so was in extremely bad taste. A whole pile of substitute expressions (which now seem quaint), like ‘Jeepers Creepers’ and ‘Jiminy Crickets’ and ‘Holy Cow’ were coined expressly to avoid saying what should and could not be said. But when things started to change, they changed almost overnight, and “Oh my God” entered the world of prime time television, to be imitated by families. Nowadays, even children will text “OMG!”
I know that those who use this expression are not trying to be irreverent, and it must seem extreme to argue that this ‘ordinary’ expression is so problematic, but if I could change one thing about our current culture’s use of language, I would change this. Even if we deny that there is a God who requires our respect, then let us at least be polite to those around us who are trying to practice their religion, and not pointlessly do what is expressly forbidden by the Jewish and Christian faiths. Consider that in the Jewish faith, God’s name is never even spoken. The Catholic documents respect this and will use the unpronounceable designation “YHWH.” Yet the modern culture, instead of simply avoiding or ignoring God’s name, uses it all the time, but only in the way which is expressly prohibited! Sadly, we use our gift of language and the tools that we have in order to offend him. Chesterton describes one of his poems which “conceived the scoffer as begging God to give him eyes and lips and a tongue that he might mock the giver of them.” (Autobiography, Chapter 4)
And speaking of politeness, the modern discourse has become noticeably ruder. EquitableOne points out that the format of internet discussions – you cannot see the face of the other – can create a situation in which ill-intent is presumed where it doesn’t exist, and the hostility escalates. The anonymity provided by the internet has an impact, in the same way that normally-considerate people will behave rudely when driving. In any case, if you go to the comment section of an online newspaper article or a popular YouTube video, then you don’t have to scroll down very far before you’ll find examples of extremely hostile and vulgar language. But even outside the internet, in the approach of newspaper editorials and popular radio commentators, there is a marked coarsening of speech. The less-educated tend to use the blunt instruments (expletives, profanities and one-word attacks, such as ‘srsly?’) to attack the people and ideas that they dislike, whereas the educated pride themselves on the cleverness of their sharper tools (sarcasm, sneering and belittling). This second group is more articulate, but nevertheless usually still avoids the heart of the argument and instead ‘scores points’ by quibbling about details and discrediting their opponent. SincereOne says that the combative style is a way of drawing attention to the speaker and increasing the number of viewers, who are always interested in a fight. Chesterton observed that genuine argument was becoming rarer – how much more so today! Even our humour has changed. “It is striking, for example, to see how humor in the media is less and less the humor of tenderness and compassion, and is instead the humor of derision.” (Jacques Philippe, Interior Freedom, Chapter 1).
Previous generations were flesh and blood too, and had all the same natural impulses that we have today, but they did not have a one-track mind, or speak as if they did. It was considered in bad taste to speak of such things casually, and the written language reflected this. But nowadays even when you go to pay for your groceries, you’ll see that the text on the front of the magazines is about as explicit as could be – or so it seems. With each passing month, the magazines go a step further, competing for readers who do not protest as everything goes to the next level. The music industry offers us a cornucopia of new slang words, but they’re all about the same thing: money, drugs and human anatomy. And since a person’s willingness to use vulgar words is taken as a sign of virility, candour and creative wit, some of these slang words enter the mainstream and degrade the language a little further. Even the government jumps on board, to show how ‘culturally relevant’ it is too. The billboard campaign, “Crotches kill,” aims to dissuade people from looking at their phones while driving, and the public library’s tote bags proclaim: “Library lovers never go to bed alone.” Chesterton wrote that in the pagan era, every “innocent and natural thing became soaked and sodden with sex:”
What had happened to the human imagination, as a whole, was that the whole world was coloured by dangerous and rapidly deteriorating passions; by natural passions becoming unnatural passions. Thus the effect of treating sex as only one innocent natural thing was that every other innocent natural thing became soaked and sodden with sex. For sex cannot be admitted to a mere equality among elementary emotions or experiences like eating and sleeping. The moment sex ceases to be a servant it becomes a tyrant. There is something dangerous and disproportionate in its place in human nature, for whatever reason; and it does really need a special purification and dedication. The modern talk about sex being free like any other sense, about the body being beautiful like any tree or flower, is either a description of the Garden of Eden or a piece of thoroughly bad psychology . . .
– G.K. Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi, Chapter Two
St. Josemaria Escriva advises:
Never talk of impure things or events, not even to deplore them. Look, it’s a subject that sticks more than tar. Change the conversation, or if that’s not possible, continue, but speaking of the need and beauty of holy purity – a virtue of the men who know what their souls are worth.
The Way, no. 131
How lovely it would be, if as a society, we could “change the conversation”! After all, in the encyclical, Pope John Paul II wrote, “The trivialization of sexuality is among the principal factors which have led to contempt for new life.”
It used to be that the written language was written, and not typed. The slower speed meant that more thought and effort inevitably went into the process. And since language is expressed thought, more thought can be only a good thing. Now we write, but we don’t think as much, or as well. We grab the first convenient word that roughly represents what we mean, and we hit ‘send.’
Chesterton writes that every technological improvement has its disadvantages:
Thus, I would say, having even then a tendency to moralise along such lines, every mechanical improvement brings a new problem with it. I do not demand faith in the fable, but I have not been discouraged in the moral, by seeing motoring lead to massacre, aviation destroy cities and machines increase unemployment.
G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography, Chapter 5
In the case of Facebook, texting, tweeting, and even email, there has been a huge cost in terms of our language. We have dumbed down our language tremendously, by reusing the same simple words so often. It’s a heavy price to pay for the speed and efficiency that we idolize so much. We’ve gone from precise, well-chosen words to mass-produced language that is one-size-fits-all. We’ve forgotten how it feels to search for and find that perfect word, because we don’t do it anymore; we can’t be bothered. It’s all about getting that message sent fast. We’ve consequently lost so many words, and with them, the ideas that they represented.
When you consider the popular phrases in our culture, you can see the dumbing down effect quite clearly: “It’s not about you,” “get with it,” “new normal,” “my bad,” “he’s not that into you,” “get out of here!” These phrases catch on because they’re easy and fast, and we start using them without even realizing it. One blogger speculated that bloggers aren’t to blame, as much as Facebook users, for the deterioration of the English language because “bloggers are usually really into writing.” I missed her meaning initially, so I went back to examine the sentence. The use of the preposition ‘into’ here – is it the verb? – is another example of the increasing vagueness. I’m not saying that it’s sinful to use these phrases, of course, and they can serve a different purpose, but certainly, it’s not an improvement in the English language. Indeed, if you were to try to translate these phrases into another language, you’d find that they are conveying more of a mood than a precise idea.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s that unclarity that comes from the use of jargon. Chesterton mentioned how Churchill was very clear when talking about something trivial, but if the subject “had been a sensible question about a super-tax, he would have adopted, however genially, a fencing sort of swordsmanship . . . he was very public, as public men go; but they all seem to become hazier as they mount higher. It is the young and unknown who have decisive doctrines and sharply declared intentions. (Autobiography, Chapter 5) And indeed, hazy language is used to hide the truth. One thing I love about Catholicism is that you can always find out exactly what the Church’s position is on important issues; the words may be difficult, but they are precise – almost scientifically so.
Jargon, on the other hand, is maddening. Give me any day the unintentional misspellings or grammatical errors that we all make rather than this intentional confusion! There are so many important but meaningless ‘catch phrases’ which are intended to give you the impression that serious work and thought are happening, but you are not more informed by the time you finish deciphering their code. Here’s an excerpt from a Canadian (Manitoba) document which attempts to describe what students will learn in ‘Language Arts’: “Combine Ideas (1.2.3.): Structure and restructure ideas to extend current understanding and to broaden personal perspectives of the world.” What? Or how about this: “Express Preferences (1.1.4): Discuss with peers preferences for texts (including books) and genres by particular writers, artists, storytellers, and filmmakers.” (The fact that they must mention that Language Arts will include books – or, to be more exact, a chat about which books the student liked – is particularly telling.) In any case, jargon is maddening and suspicious, and just another way of saying ‘blah blah blah.’ Matthew Arnold, English essayist and poet said: “Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.”
“Walk as children of light … and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph 5:8, 10-11). In our present social context, marked by a dramatic struggle between the “culture of life” and the “culture of death”, there is need to develop a deep critical sense, capable of discerning true values and authentic needs.
Evangelium Vitae (March 25, 1995)
In sum, any language is a treasure, but it’s not the kind of thing you can put into a museum. It’s like a mist or a cloud that follows us around, and it adapts. When we pollute our culture, the language deteriorates. In turn, we breathe the atmosphere that we’ve created – we hear our own ‘voice’ in our ears and it affects us too, causing a further change in us.
I have found it discouraging to observe the English language lose its beauty, and to shrink in its collection of words (words represent truths, and with the loss of words, we lose valuable pieces of truth) and so naturally I looked around: “Who or what will rescue our language? What will prevent the further degradation which seems inevitable?” And initially, I thought I found the answer: in my experience of those who have immigrated to Canada, and in my very limited interactions with non-native speakers in foreign countries, I found language that was not encumbered by these negative traits. But now I am told, and I concede, that the problem is more complicated than that, as other nations unfortunately face the same struggles that we face. “With men this is impossible . . .” (Matt. 19:26)
So I turned to the Church’s encyclical which started the phrase “culture of death” in the first place (Evangelium Vitae). I looked for the message of hope, and of course, it was there – in abundance, and the very last few words of the whole encyclical talk of “resolutely” building, “together with all people of good will, the civilization of truth and love, to the praise and glory of God, the Creator and lover of life.”
The civilization of truth and love will be a beautiful one. And this passage indicates that anything that is done by “people of good will” in order to live good and upright lives will have the effect of building up such a civilization. And from that civilization will flow all the proofs of health, including language (and art and music and so on) which is noble and dignified.
In the midst of all this thinking about language, I had managed to forget that another name for Jesus is “the Word:”
“Behold, I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”