A Man To Be Remembered
In Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 2, Shakespeare wrote, the good men do "is often interred with their bones." Once we are gone, only a very small few remember us. Many readers will not know the name of this long-forgotten American academic and U.S. Senator. Let us resurrect only a small bit of his esteemed memory and benefit from it. Readers are encouraged to read the Wikipedia entry on S. I. Hayakawa, though it scratches only the surface of his rich life.
Why dig up the memory of a PhD who was both master and defender of the English language, a semanticist who understood the power of language in itself--in a time where so many Americans are more concerned out our financial crises and their own futures? True to my own nature, I will connect history past with current ethical concerns.
Our Feelings of Fear,
The Power of Words
We live in an era of fear and, in such a time, our human emotions and mental functions spill out into words. Many feel helpless, powerless, and lash out at family, coworkers, neighbors, and others. For those who have been driven into bankruptcy, with everything they once had stripped away, or for those who fear that future condition, words seem to be all they have left, and many are negative and destructive.
There is an old, false saying: "Sticks and stones may break my bones but your words never will hurt me." Physical harms usually can be healed. Verbal harms often never are healed. There is more moral power in your words than you ever have or had in your bank account.
Hayakawa himself became interested in language because of a man who used the mere power of words--written by his hand, expelled into microphones from the air in his lungs and up through his vocal cords--Adolf Hitler. Hayakawa wrote about a republished edition of one of his great works:
The original version of this book, Language in Action, published in 1941, was in many respects a response to the dangers of propaganda, especially as exemplified in Adolf Hitler's success in persuading millions to share his maniacal and destructive views. It was the writer's conviction then, as it remains now, that everyone needs to have a habitually critical attitude towards language — his own as well as that of others — both for the sake of his personal well being and for his adequate functioning as a citizen. Hitler is gone, but if the majority of our fellow citizens are more susceptible to the slogans of fear and race hatred than to those of peaceful accommodation and mutual respect among human beings, our political liberties remain at the mercy of any eloquent and unscrupulous demagogue.If you have economic fears today, as many of us do, fear even more the misused power of your words, written or spoken. Though everything else may be taken from you, you always remain the complete ruler and autocrat of your own speech. Please, I beg you, do not take for granted this great power you have.
With your words you have the power to build up, or tear down; to speak truth, or lies; to nourish love, or fuel hate; to deepen trust, or sow doubt; to inspire, or depress. Your words have more power than any money you ever had, have, or will have.
If one person writes a gift check for ten thousand dollars to a stranger, that stranger will remember the gift, at least for a while. Yet if a person speaks only a few phrases or sentences to a stranger, at a particular moment when the stranger's psyche is uniquely open and sensitive to what is said, those words can have the power to change a life forever. Some have changed from bums to billionaires. Others have changed from stable to suicides.
The Moral Content of Language Today
Hayakawa died before the spread of such phenomena as "Gangsta Rap," but he already knew well the escalating degeneracy of the English language. I myself am part of the Baby Boomer generation of the 1950s, and my generation contributed greatly to the intentional disregard of educated, standard uses of the best English.
Our Age of the Individual taught us that the individual person's values and forms of communication and behaviors were "just as good" as any other individual's. By right of simply being alive, the breathe in our lungs "validated" whatever we said as "true for us."
I remember one day, as a freshman in college, "hearing myself" speak a stream of curse words that were "hip." I thought to myself, "I came to college with more respect for my self than this, and used better grammar and vocabulary. Is this what I came to college to become?" From that day, I determined I would become educated, and use that education. I decided to avoid the use of gutter-language for its "shock value" in polite society.
To intentionally butcher the English language, or to intentionally avoid learning not to is an excuse for the intellectually and morally degenerate. Why would I say such a thing?
- Animals have language. They make their vocalizations to each other, and strangers, to communicate. Some have very complex, others have very primitive language. No other creature has the capacity for language we do.
- Yet millions of people use language based on emotional reaction, not thinking or higher level communication. It is often not many steps away from animalistic grunts or growls. "F*** You!" is faster, easier than thinking and being human. It can mean anything, mostly contemptuous, selfish, and harmful, but it can be intended for humor. Now, to save time, many abbreviate the previous epithet to "FU."
- Degeneration of language abuse continues to spiral downward with "texting." Everyone is learning immediate, reactive, un-thought, ambiguous abbreviations to "communicate." Ignorance is our norm, and many misunderstandings, arguments, fights, and break-ups, have happened due to this "great technological tool."
- Adults and youth show this decline in their abilities to use language. Even leaders send emails riddled with signs of ignorance or disregard for careful communication.
During the 1960s and 1970s, there were several major movements to displace (1) English as our national language and (2) standard English usage as normative and expected for all Americans in employment and government. These movements were intellectual expressions of the privatization and subjectivization of language use alluded to above (whether one cites it as beginning with the Beat Generation, or not.
Large immigrant groups, such as Spanish language speakers, lobbied they needed linguistic, social, and political affirmation and accommodation. Many said they neither wanted to learn English, nor should. Other, indigenous large English dialect groups, such as the Ebonics Movement, lobbied for the same. I remember watching a program on television, when I lived in Chicago, where Black intellectuals debated--50% for, 50% against--whether or not language developed after slavery, or in the ghettos, was or was not to be affirmed and accommodated. I thought how many other groups might petition for the same. We might have Redneck-English, or something else.
On leaving the U.S. Senate in 1976, Hayakawa formed an organization, U.S. English, Inc, dedicated to "preserving the unifying role of the English language in the United States." Some declared him to be a racist for this action. Hayakawa was Japanese origin, yet he founded this group. Why? As a PhD in English and an expert in semantics and linguistics; as a former president of a university; and, then, as a U.S. Senator, he famously said, "I never could have done any of these things without learning and mastering the English language."
Hayakawa was no racist. He was an American committed to democracy. He knew that if these lobbying groups were allowed to have their way, their constituencies would be cutting themselves off from every opportunity dependent on mastery of the best English. He was loving well-intentioned people trying to defend things ultimately harmful to their own peoples. I note, according to the website of his organization, that only 30 states have English as their official language, which amazes me.
Words as Tools for Morality
Now while I am a parent of four adult children, I cannot say that all of them have chosen to master the English language as they could or should--at least not to date. The oldest has an undergraduate degree in English literature, but the rest still are making their own decisions as to the levels of English mastery they believe are required for them. And all are "texters," though their father is not.
What most people fail to realize is that mastering the English language has an impact on both their intellectual and moral development. Indeed, the greater their mastery of English, the greater is their potential to think clearly, and to become--potentially--better moral agents towards others.
Note, however, that Hayakawa became interested in language because of Adolf Hitler, his ideology written and verbal. In our time, we have many genocides, or criminals like Bernard Madoff, who use language persuasively for harmful purposes. I understand this. Yet let me discuss briefly why we can become better people intellectually and morally through our mastery of language (any language).
- Like animals, we can, if we wish, grunt and curse, use chopped-off, elliptical, ambiguous, privatistic bits of words and phrases. Those who love us most will try to figure out what we are saying, unless we learned from them. Then we are fine, so long as we do not communicate out of that circle.
- Human language separates us from the animals. To learn language--if our parents do not know, or will not teach it to us--we must work. We must learn grammar, syntax, vocabulary, style, rhetoric. Excellent language is not emotional grunting and texting. It is a dynamic, creative, highly complex, intelligent, social human act.
- Language, at its best, enables us to be better moral people. Nearly all in our use of language has moral components, when used according to accepted standards. We listen carefully. We pause before communicating. Why? We must think of the "sender's" content sent to our ears or eyes. we must consider context, vocabulary, tone, educational level, emotions involved, or "subtexts" of things unstated but implied or potential. When we have done all this, THEN we respond. All this is a moral process, an interaction between people where so many things are possible as outcomes to it..
Regardless of your current financial condition, regardless of whether you (to date--the future is open) have mastered the English language, or another if that is your native form, you have real power in your words.
You may feel powerless. Yet know that within your mind, coupled with your powers of speech and writing, you have real power, at all times and in all places. Remember the person who encouraged you when you were a child. Remember the person who hurt you deeply with words. You have an unlimited amount of potential power either to help or hurt others with your communications.
Until the day or night comes when your powers of communication are taken away, temporarily or forever, I beg you to cherish this wonderful human gift; to cultivate it as a sign of your self-worth and dignity; and, to use it for good. You have that power.
Perhaps too you will remember S.I. Hayakawa, for his life's work and its worth to us in our troubled times, where some use words for good and others for evil. Join with me in our alliance for the former! JDW