February 19, 2013

HUDSON: The Death of Language

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Some nights, when the sky is thick with clouds reddened by pollution and when the midnight mist catches like a dull prism in the glow of streetlamps, time disappears and a soft wind, whispering through empty branches and browning blades of grass, carries off the breath rising from my chest like a spoken word. I will, on occasion, take 2 a.m. walks to escape the world and find those moments of intense clarity, when life billows from my lungs and disperses in the cold air as if to offer visible evidence that I still exist. Standing still for a moment with traces of my feet left amidst the streams of salt ghosts that litter the concrete walkways, I often cannot find any words to give the experience a conveyable meaning. Why is language such a fickle thing, so utterly useless in times of such fleeting beauty, so impermanent that to watch it depart like a winter breath is almost heartbreaking? Words fail, and it is our fault.

Weakened by generations of overuse and stretched thin by the accretion of new definitions that leaves much of its original sanctity hopelessly diluted, language has been dulled by thoughtless expenditure. We have crafted a culture terrified of silence, one that despises the absence of sound and squirms under the imagined pressure of needing something to say at every passing moment. Life has become a lexical waste bin, an alleyway littered with pointless queries and half-baked clichés, awkwardly staving off the terrifying weight of soundlessness. In our fear, our absolute loathing of silence, we have driven words to a near extinction of meaning.

Consider, for instance, the transformation of the adjective “awesome.” Once employed almost exclusively in the description of kings and deities, it might now be slapped onto a list of accolades for an above average taco at a greasy downtown Tex-Mex restaurant. What of the word “friend?” Social media, namely Mark Zuckerberg’s explosively popular brainchild, has so thoughtlessly expanded the term that it might now include “some mousy kid’s helicopter mom” and “that possibly homeless man with a speech impediment who shows up at random sporting events to collect aluminum cans” (true story). Words are stretched so thin that to call someone incredibly close a “friend” is to say almost nothing at all.

It is the result of a terrible insensitivity that we so brazenly strain and misuse language. It is nothing short of a tragedy that our tongues have become prodigal spenders, wasting words like pocket change as their value diminishes. Imagine them as liquids, thick and mellifluous, flowing like honey and rich with meaning. Dilute them enough and they, like raindrops pattering and striking in sheets against tin roofs, make sound but neither soak our clothing nor wet our skin and chill our bones. When language becomes a rainstorm that is heard and not felt, it becomes nothing more than blank noise, static on a television flashing black snow against an electric white.

“The more we talk, the less words mean.” Given to me by a good friend not long ago, this spoken line from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1962 film Vivre Sa Vie expresses in words greater than mine possibly could the importance of silence and the poignancy of language’s slow death. Perhaps I am not meant to describe those moments of staggering beauty on lonely winter nights; to truly explain things as dynamic as steaming breath and shimmering streetlight reflections on wet pavement is to go mute and quietly share them with someone else. Let us not use words so frivolously; let us savor them and not speak simply to break silence. As literature proliferates and as we continue to feel the need to speak, I can only plead that we recognize those moments when language is simply inadequate and when we can use the word “friend” and genuinely mean it.

Matt Hudson is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mhudson@cornellsun.com. Red in the Face runs alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Matt Hudson