By Madeline Johnson
Sentences are like pagodas: airy little meeting places for human communion that reveal their creators’ inner characters and shape the shared environment in unrepeatably particular ways.
And like pagodas, they’re better when they’re colorful.
I’ve heard my generation described as “aggressively inarticulate”, and while I count myself the awestruck friend of many strikingly articulate young folks, I myself readily subscribe to the descriptor. I cannot tell you [. . . ahem—Yes.] how often in everyday conversations I’m stopped short by the absence of . . . not just le mot juste, but of any word, any word at all, until, after a great, blind struggle, I once again supply the most general specimens of the required parts of speech.
“When are we gonna . . . do the thing?”
Menaces to articulacy roam each generation’s landscape as it takes on for itself the task of learning to speak. When I scrutinize ours, I can pick out two in particular. The first has shaped the immediate experience of life from which flows the impulse to articulate, and the second operates on language itself.
The Screen has been charged with many crimes. I do not advocate the death penalty, but it’s a fact that whatever else they do, screens monotonize our physical experience. When I want to ascertain my financial situation, to enrich my atmosphere with music, to learn about a national tragedy, to buy a book, to enter into a friend’s global adventures, to practice my French, to navigate my city, to decide where to eat, to learn a new word, or to settle a dispute, I differ from my forebears in a significant way. Where they may have fingered silver coins; plucked sheep-gut strings; pressed their way into a crowd; ducked into a sidewalk book stall; set up a projector, screen, and slides; hunted up a foreigner; climbed to a high point; asked a local; paged through a dictionary; or gone to a field, chosen seconds, and drawn a pistol, I repeatedly tap my finger on a small plastic rectangle.
No wonder my speech is bland.
Figurative language is the peculiar glory of the rational animal. To tie some mute objects together in speech and wink to one another, knowing that they’re more than what they look like to the fleshy eye, is to trace out again in miniature the great joke of being both a sack of blood and bones and a knower of the essences of things. They tied the knot, we say, savoring the very unspokenness of the mystery that the simple image signifies. Figures of speech dignify our merely material movements with the spiritual significance they possess as the movements of a rational creature. The colorful colloquialisms that render rural speech quaint and somehow profound come from a tactile engagement with life that we simply get less of.
We still twirl our sentences around when we get bored, of course, and when attended to, our habits of embellishment are just as reflective of our digitized linguistic environment as earlier generations have been of their pastoral or mechanized ones. We let syllables fizzle out into abbreviated caricatures of speech. We pour jokes into the molds of memes we don’t fully understand. We reflect the experience of reading hastily composed prose by voicing things in badly punctuated monotones, our delicately imbalanced inflections reflecting the forgotten question mark, the misplaced line break. Fun; just a little grey. It’s missing the muscles of the back aflame, the rhythm of the shoulder rocking.
So life glows and is glassy: I look and know, I tap and do. The things that want naming often live in a plane of artificial light. But further, the pool of verbiage from which they draw their names has its hazards, too.
The second outlaw whose face I post for wariness is The Brand. The marketplace is where we’ve always gone to exchange both things and words, and the sellers of wares occupy an influential place in the forging of language. The narrators of contemporary markets map a vast linguistic domain with unprecedentedly intricate territorial boundaries. As manufactured products became more and more processed, required more and more specialized apparatus to produce, and, especially, became more and more numerous and various, the people who made things had not only to supply us with things we knew we needed, but also to narrate for us where their products fit into our lives. Thus began a new genre in the history of human literature, one designed not to recognize sameness, not to call out the essence of different particulars and give them all one common and true name and thus to render it intelligible to the rational intellect and the deliberative will for contemplation and choice, but rather! instead! very differently! to officially differentiate each particular and affix to each one a trademark to keep them that way. The Epic, the Romance, the Novel, the Brand Name.
The virtue of a name is not just to provide an object with a unique handle for reference by our mental software. Conventional names for the fixtures of human life are invitations to fruitful etiological mythologizing. They’re cultural artifacts, carrying with them, like family names, a history. There’s no hand-me-down wisdom in a brand name, by contrast, just the amusing suggestion of a conference-room scene of which this particular string of adjectives was the fiercely debated product. Mass-produced uniqueness is often hard to remember, though, and further, we might have a visceral aversion to adopting it because we can smell its impersonal commercial origins. “Can I get the . . . [squint at the display; skip four chipper, hyperbolic, punny, or suggestive descriptors] car . . . wash . . . please?”
It may seem ill-humored of me to pick a fight with the cute narrative embellishments of local establishments’ wares, but here is my concern: I am twenty years old, and I have found myself of late staring at objects and uttering, with the triumph of a three-year-old, the common nouns that name them. The objects in my world are so stickered with the labels necessitated by the infrastructure of our technologically and bureaucratically artificed world, and indeed the contours of my experience are so genuinely shaped by the technological and bureaucratic steps I will need to take to make them work, that I continuously find myself uncertain of the basic genre to which any given object in my experience belongs, and unable to describe with a simple, true verb an action I might be taking without ellipsis-inducing deliberation.
There are a million fall-outs of the marketers’ encroachment on the poet’s and philosopher’s and common man’s language-forging-roles, from softening the impact of euphemized atrocities to the proliferation of redundant, overly-specialized hair products, but I simply want to point out precisely what it is that is getting squished out so that we can be sure to keep doing it anyway: it’s the creative activity of the most human of our faculties as we perceive a thing and recognize its telos—what it’s meant for—and accordingly and authoritatively name it. I miss, and with my childish relapses I have been tasting again, the quite proper thrill of calling a spade a spade, not because I’m up on the production trends (“Nah, dude, that’s an ErgoSteelForceVegeTremorBlade.”), but because I am the sort of creature who has hands and digs holes and can recognize a handy rearrangement of the materials of my planet when she sees one.
My fellow speakers, what it is to speak truth is in these times of ours partially defined by these obstacles. Let us then with high humor navigate the proliferous tendrils of The Brand to seek out the plain, elusive common noun. With spirit and verve and all five senses alert, conscious of our skeletons and muscles and the balance-regulating canals in our inner ears, let us pursue the swift and bright-plumed action verb!
Madeline Johnson is a junior studying philosophy.