Saturday, June 04, 2011

Words and Drama

Many contemporary philosophers believe the maxim that "language creates reality." They would argue that if there was no word for "freedom," we would have no concept for "freedom," and would therefore never demand freedom. A similar but less dramatic philosophy would be that language and reality simultaneously shape each other. The abstract desire for freedom gives rise to a concrete representation (in the form of a word), which solidifies or accelerates a demand.

Another scenario would see existing words re-fashioned to serve a different function. For example, I used a word in the preceding paragraph ("dramatic") which has taken on an additional function over the course of my lifetime. When I was in high school, if I had told a classmate that I "had drama last hour," I would be communicating that I had just come from a specific English class (where I would perhaps be studying Sophocles or Moliere). If a high school student were to say the same today, what would be understood by the listener was that there was some type of interpersonal conflict, in which somebody's feelings were hurt.

When I first heard the new application of this word some years back, I immediately approved of it. I felt that it was a well-understood, succinct summary of a kind of common phenomenon, particularly in youth culture. I felt that by naming a thing, it could be better understood, and perhaps better corralled. It's one thing to advise teen-agers to avoid getting caught up in complex interpersonal rivalries, but it's likely much more effective to suggest that they avoid "drama." But apparently not everybody was so approving. I found this post on an Internet message board, dated June 29, 2007:

I have become frustrated with the current usage of words in our language. I hear statements being made that make absolutely no sense. The standard excuse is that the person is speaking slang. Well, Im tired of it. I realize slang has been around for years but if you ask me todays slang is really dumb.

For example the use of the word drama in our society has become a major annoyance. I often hear people say, "I dont need the drama". "He/she has too much drama." The meaning of the word drama can be found at . If you look it up the definition basically refers to poetry or writings that paint a picture of human life. It also refers to people acting out sitautions in plays and on movie/tv. How people started using the word drama as a negative description of a person with a volatile personality is a mystery to me.

This post betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how language works, but I'm not sure it is the poster's fault. Our society treats the dictionary as a Bible of language, when it really should be considered a Kelley Blue Book of language. Rather than authoritatively fix the definitions, the purpose of the dictionary is to reflect current usage. And since our language is "living," it will naturally change.

But there is something else about the above quote that interests me. It starts out with "I have become frustrated." I can see one becoming frustrated with offensive use of language. But why should an altered use of the word "drama" frustrate someone? Even if it is an offense against the dictionary, it's not like the dictionary actually is placed next to Bibles and hymnals in churches. Is this person a member of a "church of the dictionary" dedicated to the preservation of the purity of language? If there is such a church, their high holiday must be New Year's Day, since that's when the Lake Superior State University list of "banished words" is released (annually since 1976). The list gets a lot of media attention, though nobody takes it seriously to the point where they readjust their vernacular habits. If anything the list is regarded as an interesting compilation of additions to the language. To truly banish many of them would at best leave gaps between our culture's practice and our ability to talk about our practice, and at worst lead to regression. Many of the words and terms on the list are related to technological advancements, and to still maintain opposition to them now would be embarrassing. Banishing the word "blog" might have sounded like a good idea in 2005, but I would like to think it's garnered acceptance by now. And this year's list seeks to banish the use of "google" as a verb, an entry that already seems embarrassing.

Reading the "rationales" for words on the list is like reading the diatribe against "drama." The tone is the same--resentment and indignation. So what is the root cause of this aggression toward additions to a language that we all agree is "living"? Is it simple elitism, a resistance to vulgar dialect? I don't think so. I think the explanation has to do with the connection between language and reality. Our language is changing only because our world is changing. And a lot of change makes a lot of people uncomfortable. So when somebody submits the word "blog" for banishment, under the auspices of disliking a word that "sounds like something your mother would slap you for saying," they are really expressing anxiety over the existence of a word that "your mother" never would have heard growing up. But it's not only the existence of the word that provokes anxiety, but the existence of a new concept that changes the world (i.e. alters reality) for both better and worse.

Who knew that a few little words could cause so much drama?


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