Objective starts with O. That is an objective statement that no one can object to. Right? It assumes nothing, shows no bias – except that the beginning of the word is on the left and not the right. It also shows a possible preference for the letter at the start of a word rather than other letters in the word. Why do we alphabetize words using the letter at the start, or left-most edge of the word? Why not write things vertically? Or even ndyrolam?
Ok. In English we have developed a symbol system for language that runs from left to right, and traditionally have organized lists and records based on the first, or left-most letter of words. So it is a traditional system that we are taught and use in common. Why not change it? Well why? Language systems shift, organizational practices change but they tend to do so glacially. Why so slow? Well we might find it difficult to communicate otherwise.
It is hard to be objective, even when making a simple statement about a word. The statement can be unpacked and found to rest on traditional choices made, then propagated by repetition and teaching because common systems make communication easier. Common systems sometimes also make the boxes we live in difficult to see, the presuppositions that we carry with us hard to leave behind. This difficulty means we all bring bias to our work, even work in math or science where things seem more countable and certain. Can we ever get rid of this bias, our presuppositions, our lack of objectivity?
I’m not sure we can entirely ditch bias and become completely objective. But I think a quest for better objectivity, for other ways of looking at the world, for ways to see what kind of box we think inside, is a good idea.
How do we do this? Read widely. Listen. Look. Think. Ask questions. Try different things. If you creep up something from multiple directions, if there is a convergence onto some key ideas from multiple lines of evidence, then you might be onto something. Truth may be nearer than you think. But it is hard work.
Time for another excursus, the weekly rabbit trail, a break from our alphabetic ways.
This week I read Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie. This is a LOST book and I can see why it was referenced on that island-centric show. The murder takes place at a hotel on an island which is connected to the mainland by a causeway, which is underwater at high tide. The people at the hotel at the time of the murder all, of course, have previous, off-island lives, which play into the investigation. It is all very LOST-like in many ways. You should check it out.
I’ve also just finished re-reading Possession, Best Book Ever. The language play is phenomenal. Haven’t read it? You should. It is a literary read, there are poems, but that is part of the fun. Look at the language and the way Byatt plays with words. So Good.
Since I just closed Possession, I’m in that between-book haze where I’m still in the world of literary scholars and poets and unpublished manuscripts. I’m not quite in a place where I can even think of what I’m going to read next.
True confessions: I’ve yet to read 1984 by George Orwell. It wasn’t on my high school reading list. I think I should read it because the idea of newspeak as portrayed in the novel seems prophetic. I’m currently reading Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. After a bleak beginning Marilyn Chandler McEntyre gives twelve word stewardship strategies. Strategy number 1 is Love words. I do love words. But I also hate some words. I think that is ok. Here is my argument.
Languages change over time. We need new words to talk about new things. An automobile is a relatively new thing, so a new word was coined for the invention. Some other words and phrases around the new horseless carriage sprang up, and some fell quickly by the wayside. A century later in North America we mostly talk about cars. All this to say that change happens.
There is a new word floating around which is unnecessary, and, I think, is another pompous attempt by some people to sound like they know what they are talking about. The word? Impactful. I hate the very sound of it.
This word is unnecessary. You can use other words in its place. If you need to have the connotation of an impact (smack!) than you can say that something had an impact on the other thing. If you mean that something was actually influential, then say that. When you say “impactful” it sounds like you have no idea what you actually mean.
There is some opinion that “impactful” is here to stay. I hope in 25 years we will think of it as a temporary and minor aberration in the history of English. After all, if the revered website “Urban Dictionary” says that impactful is a fake, it must be true. And fake words go away after a while. Right?
By the way, if you include the word “impactful” in written work that I grade, that word will have a negative impact on your grade.
[This web-post was inspired by listening to some academics talk. Their use of vocabulary influenced me to write about using words well.]
I am reading some interesting non-fiction at the moment. I’ve progressed very slowly through James K.A. Smith’s The Fall of Interpretation. I’m not sure exactly why I am reading this quite so slowly as I am, but the contents of the book interest me. I’m provoked to rabbit-trails of thought, which is a good thing. It does, however, make for slow reading. In Smith this morning, I read some discussion of language in Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine (alternate English title: On Christian Teaching). My transit reading for the day was Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination, the Massey Lectures for 1962. I made it through the first two of Frye’s lectures. They are fascinating reading. I imagine they are also fascinating listening.
The interplay of first reading Smith writing about Augustine writing about language, then reading Frye’s words on literature as opposed to other uses of language has set my head spinning. I’m not sure how my brain will land on this. More thought is needed. Here, as food for your own thinking, are some quotes that have me thinking hard on how to teach a class on telling stories in religious education.
This allusiveness in literature is significant, because it shows what we’ve been saying all along, that in literature you don’t just read one poem or novel after another, but enter into a complete world of which every work of literature forms a part. This affects the writer as much as it does the reader.
From Smith (on Augustine):
Language is required in order to express that which is interior to the soul by means of something external (verbum); thus language “makes public” the “private” intentions and desires of the self; words are therefore “common property,” belonging to a community. Language must span a gulf between interiorities, precisely because the other has “no means of entering into my soul.” The “space” between souls requires the mediation of signs, which in turn requires interpretation.
Shared stories are essential to community, particularly a community of faith. We need to tell these stories, using language well, in order to share faith with others.
I mentioned Mark Helprin before in my post on comedy and prophecy. I’m reading another book by Helprin. He is becoming a favoured author. One cannot read his books too quickly. The one I’m presently reading Winter’s Tale features New York City and a white horse with certain special abilities. The book is slightly surreal, as was Freddy and Fredericka which I read before. The surreality is part of the appeal. But in all the surreality, Helprin also makes some statements about society. And about philosophy too. I thought of the mis-communication that was a constant theme in F&F when I read about language and the ability most of us have of communicating with one another most of the time in a philosophy book recently. I wondered to myself whether Helprin was making a comment on deconstructionists and people of that ilk when he wrote F&F. I decided he probably was. His books are simply too intelligent for that not to be the case. Check out Helprin. He writes good stuff. Why is he not read more?