Words Matter

December 9, 2008

I see that Erin, over at Crunchy Con, has found the same news item about dictionaries as I did.  She, like Roger Kimball, is primarily concerned about the implications for the de-Christianization of England (and Europe).  But there’s something more going on with that damn dictionary– and, from my head-over-heels in love with the English language perspective, something more sinister.  She writes:

“Deciding to drop a word that has already fallen out of use, become obsolete, from a dictionary is not a political act, but removing words still in everyday use just because you’ve decided they ought not be important in the vocabulary of a modern child most decidedly is.”

I think I got at this a little while ago, in a different context, here.  We need words not only for communication, but for comprehension.  It’s a point Peter Lawler makes several times in Postmodernism Rightly Understood (and at least one of which I would quote if it weren’t for the exceptional unhelpfulness of its index).  When discussing Walker Percy, the problem of modernity is in part viewed as an inability to communicate, both to ourselves and others, in meaningful terms.  That is, we’re losing a grip on language.

Whether or not that’s been the case for as long as Percy (and Lawler?) seem to perceive, the connection between language and reality — and the problems a disconnect entails — are there.  Kimball, in passing, notes that many of the words removed describe the natural world.  It’s the type of thing Wendell Berry could have a field day with, writing one of those earnest and heartful essays that leave my head ringing with a Kentucky accent for hours.  But it’s the type of thing to make me less optimistic: any linguistic disconnect  between humanity and the world in which we live foretells a furthering of the present disconnect, not a repairing.  If we don’t know how to talk about the world, how the hell are we supposed to appreciate it — to love it for what it is, our home, where we are from — let alone repair what needs to be repaired.  Let alone teach our children to appreciate it so they don’t make our same mistakes.

As for the matter of England, Europe, The West, and Christianity — I suppose it concerns me in a primarily historical way.  To paraphrase Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is an historical treatise, not merely an aesthetic one, and when he writes, “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead,” he’s speaking to the matter at hand quite well.  The present does not exist devoid of the past; the exist in relation to one another, they give meaning to one another.  A truly self-constructed nation, or person, is one living without comprehension of its/his past.  One can live without it, and I suppose a nation can exist without it, but they do so without any meaning.

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