Exploring the Innate Purpose of Language
“There are many people thinking overmuch about the encroachment of colloquial and slangy speech upon good English.”
— Arthur G. Kennedy
The frustrated voice of Arthur G. Kennedy echoes through time, space, and the pages of the journal American Speech. His essay, “The Future of the English Language,” is as relevant today as it was when it was published in 1933. Ever since the English language was formalized through the advent of the dictionary and filtered through a rigid education system, there has been a pretentiousness surrounding how “best” to use language. The hemming in of language by an institutionalized view of “good” English is much like the damming of a river – but I may be getting ahead of myself.
With the rise in online content, the increasingly pervasive forms of advertising, and the sheer availability of words, the death knell of “good” English has once again been sounded by people in academia, business, and politics.
However, the integration of technology into our daily lives, the explosion of the global population, and the ease with which we can communicate with people across the globe all have undeniable effects on the English language. As the landscape of language shifts on the tectonic plates of cultural change and the world becomes cluttered with words, the question becomes this: What is the purpose and value of well-constructed words?
Words Live in the Mind
The answer remains the same as it always has: Words help us make sense of the world. But this isn’t in a mechanical sense of needing to know that a chair is a chair because it’s called a chair. Language’s main social purpose isn’t to facilitate mechanics – it is to articulate emotion. As Virginia Woolf so aptly explains, “Words do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind.” Language uncovers capital “T” Truths that would otherwise remain locked within us.
For businesses and distributors of information, this means that in a world where readers are constantly consuming advertisements, news stories, and opinion pieces from a multitude of sources, it is vital that their content is emotionally engaging from the very first sentence. This is where the belief that language is being degraded becomes laughable. Language isn’t something that can be degraded through use. It exists as a societal orchestra, where the zeitgeist serves as the conductor, the competing voices of different social groups fill the four sections, and storytellers power the original composition.
It’s for this reason that words, when used properly – “properly” being defined as capable of manipulating emotion – are of increasing, not lessened, importance.
The Global Growth of English
The global population of English speakers has now surpassed two billion people, meaning that everything written has the potential to have a truly global audience. Moving forward, a business’s success will depend heavily on its ability to tap into people’s evolving use of language – and, more specifically, their use of English. The global growth of English and its use as the predominant language for online discourse has created an even greater need to create stories that are relevant across a range of different cultural frameworks – as opposed to spinning narratives centered on a solely westernized view of the world.
While English is almost certainly not going to become the sole global language, its increased use across the world has raised concerns regarding matters of culture and identity. However, the pervasiveness of the language could actually be used to some benefit: It could help repair the damage of economics-based globalism.
Over the past few decades, businesses and governments alike have been guilty of lecturing consumers and voters about how globalism benefits everyone equally. Opening up borders, we have been told, will create jobs and opportunities, and will result in completely fair and equal societies. The reality has of course been quite different. Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, wrote on this issue in 1996: “Economic globalization has entered a critical phase. A mounting backlash against its effects, especially in the industrial democracies, is threatening a very disruptive impact on economic activity and social stability in many countries. […] This can easily turn into revolt.” This warning went largely unheeded, and, over 20 years later, the backlash has sent ripples throughout the world. Or, as Schwab put it himself in 2017: “Today, we face a backlash against that system and the elites who are considered to be its unilateral beneficiaries.”
This is where the power of storytelling has been completely misplaced and the increased literacy of readers has not been taken into account. Powerful entities like the UN, western nations, and conglomerates that use English as their primary language of communication have helped shape one very popular narrative. In this conception, both consumers and companies benefit from globalism: When the needs of businesses are put ahead of the needs of people, the argument goes, conditions for economic trade are improved, which ultimately benefits the public.
Speechwriters, marketing managers, ad writers, politicians, and CEOs alike have constructed their institutions around stories of inevitable growth and progress, and these stories often feel as if they have been decimated down from on high. Sometimes, the language used is dumbed down to such an extent that it insults the intelligence of consumers; other times, the political-style, pseudo-intellectual spiel that politicians and CEOs have adopted as standard says very little, providing nothing more than a framework of exaggerated, intangible promises that stand at a distance from the real-life struggles of ordinary people. It is the writers of the latter that often fall into the habit of vilifying the evolution of language.
To solve for the disconnect between brands, politicians, and others in positions of power and their intended audiences, it is essential to understand that writing is itself a specialized skill; moreover, writing for specific mediums must be regarded as equally specialized. Hemingway didn’t write poems, Tennyson didn’t write novels, and the brand copywriters for Apple likely don’t write poems or novels. Writing is not a singular art form, and the ability to construct stories to suit a specific purpose and audience is one of the key differentiators between well-marketed businesses and those that miss the mark. Effusive, elegant prose – something that is all too often thrown out in favor of jargon – will grab the attention of readers looking to learn more about your business or read up on a complex topic; however, listening to overly complex, tell-don’t-show voiceover on a video simply won’t engage an audience that is astute thanks to the sheer amount of content they consume. Readers, viewers, audiences, voters, and consumers are simply people who want the language they encounter to connect with them emotionally – whether they are aware of that or not.
Consumers need not be aware of their desires and motivations as they relate to the material they read, watch, and listen to – but the businesses and other entities crafting these narratives must have a solid understanding of this underlying purpose. As evidenced by human history, stories and the words used to tell them help people make sense of the world. It is not that language must only be used in a certain way; rather, each story needs to be powered by words that cut through the background noise that makes up people’s daily lives. Only in this way can a story strike a chord with the deeper elements of the human consciousness. The product, concept, or idea an organization is hoping to push through the content it creates should always be secondary to the need to engage the human side of that content’s audience.
Language is natural to the human consciousness, and its purpose is as clear now as it was when Arthur G. Kennedy fist criticized those who fail to see how the progress of language is natural to the human condition.
Embracing the Flow of Language
Language is like a coursing river. It is a powerful, earth-altering force that constantly erodes its own foundations – but in doing so, it nourishes itself. A river is never finished. Instead, it is pulled forward constantly by the unspoken force of gravity. There will always be people who attempt to impede its progress by putting up blocks and dams. But this progress is inevitable. Just as damming a river causes drought in one spot and flooding elsewhere, so too is holding back the flow of language a futile task. If fresh water is the lifeblood of human civilization, language is the lifeblood of human emotion.
Words make us feel connected to the world around us. We build our personalities around them; they fix our broken hearts; and, when it doesn’t seem possible, they can make us fall in love all over again. Businesses, news outlets, and political parties should have one thing in mind when they are churning out content: The power of words can never be diluted – no matter how abundant they are.
So, whether you’re trying to sell products, persuade voters, or articulate an idea, the reins to the future are in the hands of the same people as they were in the past: great storytellers.