The Cold Isolation Of Modern Language
Eskimo tribes had a thousand different words for snow; modern culture has one. Even the way people talked a couple hundred years ago is full of words that no longer roam the earth. Pick up any classic and get bombarded with strange and mysterious adjectives and verbs that are practically extinct. The nuance of our language is slowly disappearing, like a paint palette reduced in spectrum from the rainbow to only primary colors. Like saber-tooth fangs in a museum, we marvel at the conjuring power of dictionary words such as the once common 'flummox' or even onomatopoeic actions that have disappeared such as the verb kench* (rhymes with quench), a Middle English word that means to laugh loudly. There were once hundreds of magnificent verbs and adjectives loose in the wilds of everyday speech, each magnificent in their own domain. The perfect word has a way of satisfying the previously unlabeled void it fills.
So why don’t we have as many words today? It’s not an idiocracy, people aren’t much different now than they were five hundred years ago, we just have fewer words and less opportunity to use them. This gradual narrowing of human expression has side effects. Think of the care and personal attention, the range of topics and feelings covered in a letter, especially when people had no alternative means of communication. The restriction of avenues of expression has a way of sharpening what remains. Now think of the most memorable SMS you’ve ever received. Any texts I can think of are noteworthy only as bookmarks for events that have their own significance. Even at its most eloquent, 160 characters is a very narrow frame in which to display a thought. How many people can write a great haiku? The less you have to work with, the more mastery required with which to make something meaningful. It’s not that one form of communication or the other is better, it’s that it’s too easy to get one’s fill of companionship at the surface level, missing out of the depths human interaction is capable of reaching. Pushing away the chef’s delicacies because you ate two hamburgers in the car on the way over. People talk about the slow food movement-we need slow thought, too. Reflexive, instant answers are not always the best path.
Sometimes the most meaningful thoughts take days or months to answer, your subconscious grinding away like a ten year old laptop lazily pushing a progress bar. There are 99999 seconds remaining in the transfer. How helpful. When you finally finish pondering, those are the thoughts that steer the course of your life. The deliberate decisions that shape who you are. It’s easy to ignore their insistence, pushing down the nagging uneasiness without ever recognizing it for what it is. Everyone decides what to do with their life, even if the choice is nothing more than unconsciously selecting indecision. Overlooking the significance of your life’s course is easier than ever with properly descriptive words dying off and digital thought coming in ever more truncated bursts. The ones and zeros are getting through with perfect clarity, but that analog range in the middle, the space between the raw data, that’s what we’re starting to ignore, and it’s what makes life worth living. I hope the Eskimos have a word for that, because I sure don’t.
*Through an inexplicably bizarre twist of human definition, kench is now the noun for a deep bin in which fish are salted. Understanding the nature of this word’s metamorphosis, I feel, would make just a little more sense out of the universe.