Strictly Speaking, the Language Reform Movement Is Useless
There is a movement afoot to correct the worldwide abuse of the English language. Reformers claim that our abuse of words is crucially linked with the moral decline of our society. One of the leaders is Edwin Newman, author of the best-selling Strictly Speaking, and there have been others. “Bad language ultimately is immoral,” says Professor Richard Mitchell, who wages a war against linguistic abuse by publishing a monthly newspaper called The Underground Grammarian.
It was during the Vietnam war that the U.S. military used the phrase “hamlet pacification’ ‘to describe the annihilation of entire villages, and termed bombed-out areas “sanitized.” (Remember the torture agents of Orwell’s “Ministry of Love”?) And during Watergate, Mr. Newman recalls, the Nixon administration used evasive and desensitizing phrases like “excess of zeal” and “higher national interests” for what Congress finally decided was cheating in the White House.
Most of us are sick of hearing pompous double talk from politicians, TV announcers, and other self-styled authorities. We would welcome the triumph of clear, honest expression over verbal camouflage. But we should note where the movement for linguistic reform lacks substance. The reformers have exposed lamentable (and sometimes laughable) abuses of language, but they have not give us a vision of how language can best serve humanity.
“Our politics would be improved if our English were,” says’ Newman, “and so would other parts of our national life…. those for whom words have lost their value are likely to find that ideas have also lost their value.”
So, what if the reformers were to have their way? Let’s say large numbers of people give up their bad habits and start communicating clearly and eloquently. Still the question remains, What will people say to each other that will solve life’s problems? The language reformers can only talk vaguely about a liberating quality in language itself. Good language, Newman says, “is a treasure trove of wit, charm, and inspiration.” But how will this save us from the problems of existence? Even a dog communicates directly and honestly, through barking; nonetheless, he lives a dog’s life. Will added eloquence bring us relief from misery?
Let’s extend this discussion toward a philosophical inquiry into language’s ultimate purpose. According to the Vedic logical treatise Vedanta-sutra, life is meant for inquiring into the Absolute Truth. So language must help fulfill this basic human need. The Vedanta begins with the Sanskrit expression athato, which means “now”—now that we’ve transmigrated up from the animal species and graduated to the human form. “Now”—now that we’ve learned that temporary, material pleasures can’t satisfy the soul, the self—let us inquire beyond. The Vedanta declares, athato brahma-jijnasa—now let us go beyond the material into spiritual or absolute inquiry: Where does everything come from? What is the highest truth ? What is the ultimate happiness? If we make this ultimate inquiry (Vedanta literally means “the goal of knowledge”), then we are putting language to its best use.
We have to direct language toward solving life’s problems, notably the cycle of birth, old age, disease, and death. And further, we have to direct language toward a practical understanding of eternity. Otherwise, saying “hurry” instead of “delay should not be allowed to take place” may be an improvement, but does this take away the problem of death? If we say “I hope” instead of “hopefully,” does this stop disease and old age? If not, then what is our ultimate gain? Linguistic reform becomes only a kind of parlor game. Despite their claims that bad language is immoral and a killer of ideas, the reformers don’t have a grasp of what constitutes actual morality and knowledge.
Language, then, has to relay the Absolute Truth. Many philosophers believe that beyond this temporary, material existence there is only void or impersonal existence, and so they say that language cannot go further than the temporary and the relative. (“That which can be spoken cannot be truth.”) But when properly used, language can convey absolute spiritual knowledge. In essence Vedanta is declaring, “Let us stop talking falsely. Now let us begin real talking.”
But is it possible to use language so perfectly and profoundly that it will unlock the mysteries of existence? Yes, if we pattern our words strictly after the scriptural statements in which the Supreme Personality of Godhead has conveyed knowledge of Himself to man. In these eternal statements we find no human flaws, speculations, or camouflages, or even any literary inconsistencies. The Vedic teachers do not expect us to accept such claims blindly. Instead, they invite us to inquire thoroughly.
In one Vedic verse, the human tongue is compared to a desert. Although the tongue may endlessly try to derive pleasure from mundane art, politics, sociology, philosophy, poetry, and such, these will not satisfy our taste for the water of immortality. However well articulated, these transient topics do not satisfy the urge of the soul. The soul’s ultimate solace is to attain knowledge and realization and love of God. And we can enter into this transcendental stage by absorbing ourselves in the perfect language recorded in scripture and repeated by the great spiritual teachers.
On the other hand, as the ancient Srimad-Bhagavatam informs us, “Those words which do not describe the glories of the Lord, who alone can sanctify the atmosphere of the whole universe, are considered by saintly persons to be like unto a place of pilgrimage for crows. Since the all-perfect persons are inhabitants of the transcendental abode, they do not derive any pleasure there.” According to this transcendental criterion, the mundane linguistic crusade is just a kind of highbrow bewilderment (as opposed to the lowbrow kind). A whole population is lost admist the babblings and rumblings of an abused language, and the reformers have made an accurate expose. But their remedy—their attempt to correct the grammar and syntax of the lost souls—brings to mind the fellow who polished a bird’s cage but forgot to feed the bird.
The real self is the soul, and he wants freedom from death—and knowledge of this freedom comes to him in the language of Srimad-Bhagavatam: “That literature which is full of descriptions of the transcendental glories of the name, fame, forms, and pastimes of the unlimited Supreme Lord is a different creation, full of transcendental words that will bring about a revolution in the impious lives of this world’s misdirected civilization.”—SDG