COLUMN: What’s in a word? Lots…

Local columnist Al Lehmann considers human language

Al Lehmann

I recall once leaving the theatre at the end of the Tarzan movie Greystoke. Just as Tarzan and the apes grunted at one another in the movie, numerous moviegoers leaving the theatre made “Ooh-ooh-ooh” sounds, scratching their clothed armpits, and grinning foolishly at each other in a conspiracy of imitation. Tarzan may not have truly communicated with the apes, but it was delightful to think so.

How did human language begin? It’s a mystery. Proposals include theories named “Bow-Wow,” (imitation of natural sounds), “Yo-He-Ho” (utterances related to cooperative performance of necessary work), and several others, none of which are proven.

Language and arguably mathematics are perhaps the two greatest human tools of all. What is education but a massive cultural effort to deliver at least limited mastery of their use to new generations? The Oxford English Dictionary runs to twelve volumes! We ought, by now, to generate and share extremely rich language, even within the simplicities of our daily lives. But do we?

Political language, the language of persuasion and command, may be complex and laden with jargon, but it has become increasingly distanced from the speech of everyday life, perhaps a major reason why much of the population becomes disenchanted with politics. George Orwell deplored the use of deliberately opaque language in politics to mislead and falsely reassure citizens.

Further, language can be weaponized into a tool of oppression. Language has enabled colonization for millennia. Roman Latin permeated the Mediterranean area and much of Europe, spread as it was first through warfare, and later through administration and trade. Names of conquered peoples were often turned into pejoratives based on race and culture. When the English took control of Ireland, they forbade the Celts to use or teach their own language, a strategy also shamefully employed in North America with the First Nations children kidnapped into residential schools.

Language can also create an escape from the mainstream culture so many people find stultifying. Uninhibited invention within a cultural subgroup often generates many new expressions that through their use mark group membership. Most of us would be hard-pressed to understand clearly ghetto language in major U.S. cities, for example, but neighbourhood dwellers would know exactly what their speeches mean. Expressions from these novel dialects are often enthusiastically adopted into the mainstream, particularly by the young.

Recently HBO presented Four Hours at the Capitol, consisting largely of original cell phone and body camera video and taped interviews with participants at the US Capitol insurrection of January 6, 2021. How simplistic and semi-literate much of the speech was! Even journalists infused their comments with “like” or “f***” every few words, as if an accurate description of their experience was simply beyond them. It was difficult not to conclude that these people were just stupid, yet investigation has found that the rioters came from all walks of life including the professions. They simply speak badly. At times my cat makes more sense.

Donald Trump once claimed, “I know words. I have the best words.” Was that a joke?! On a good day, he exhibits the vocabulary of a surly, not very bright junior high school student. Perhaps as political speech further devolves into “likes” and expletives, it will return to the whistles and grunts from which language is proposed to have emerged. Who needs the best words when you’ve got, “Ooh-Ooh-Ooh!!”