Tuesday, March 03, 2009

One Entirely Inconsequential Thought

I've been reading a book of essays called Consider the Lobster, and I am eating it up. David Foster Wallace, the author, took his life last year, and as I started reading about him and his work, I knew that he deserved some more of my time and consideration (which are, honestly, some of the greatest compliments you can give a person; I am humbled by the time and consideration given by those reading this sentence).

The essay I am working on right now is about the politics of compiling dictionaries (if you're surprised to find out that the making of dictionaries is a contentious affair, so was I). On the conservative side of the camp are the Prescriptivists. These are the people that most of us probably had as English teachers in junior high; people who, with seeming glee, sent their red ink flowing onto our beautiful papers over which we had struggled and obsessed whenever they spotted a dangling preposition or a non-parallel series of items (two infinitives and a gerund anyone?). Prescriptivists believe that language has rules that ought to be followed, and that dictionaries and books on grammar ought to enforce these rules.

On the liberal side of the street are the freewheeling Descriptivists. These were the kids in class who would assert, with a hint of irony, that "Ain't ain't a word," as if to say, "Though I acknowledge that people think that ain't isn't a word, not only will I use it in a sentence, but also you will understand exactly my intention." If verbal or written communication is taking place, then that language ought to be studied and quantified. Descriptivists believe that language, as a fluid and dynamic force, is constantly changing, and, as such, dictionaries should do their best to include words and phrases that are on the fringes of being accepted.

Apparently people do argue about this.

I touched on it above, but the basic crux of the issue between these two linguist factions as I understand it is: ought we to enforce rules about language, or ought we to observe language?

Wallace then goes on to examine what he exemplifies as the stoner's dilemma, which goes something like this: say you have been using recreational drugs (a dilemma in itself), and you flip on the television. The first thing that pops up is an LPGA tournament. Though you are not a golf fan, you become entranced by the soothing baritone of the announcer. As you watch an amazing putt from the rough, it occurs to you that the grass is green. Immediately, you become paranoid that, though everyone who has ever talked to you about the color of grass has emphasized that it is green, how do you know you can trust them? In other words, how do you know that the idea in your mind of what green is is the same as the next person's idea of what green is?

The answer he comes up with is kind of a mix between Prescriptivist and Descriptivist doctrines. As our language was being formed, somebody (perhaps arbitrarily) came up with the idea that the result of mixing blue and yellow should be called green. People began to accept this idea, and so, a rule (Prescriptivism) was made about how a word was being used (Descriptivism). Following this logic, since anyone who is not color blind would look at the grass and call it green in color, our friend the stoner can rest easy, knowing that everyone experiences green in basically the same way. If they didn't, green would either be called something else, or the language would have to adapt or falter (as the basic purpose of language is to communicate, and if everybody weren't on the same page about basic items, there would be no communication).

If you have followed me this far, I applaud you. I would have given up long ago. However, all of the above was stated just to give you a background to the next thought process.

Man, at some point, chose what all the words in our language would be. As there are, obviously, many different languages in the world, there are many different words to express the same idea. With that in mind, I can't help but wonder which languages are the best at expressing various issues.

If words were just chosen arbitrarily, are we to assume that they were without meaning prior to being named? If so, how confusing! If no, by what measure shall we mete them?

I find my own personal answer through my faith. I believe that God knows every word of every human language, but I can't help but wonder if humans have really hit the nail on the head with any of God's language, so to speak. I wonder if any word in any earthly language is the precise word that God uses. Sure, he might suffer everyone saying "Our Father Who art in heaven," but He would prefer us to call him Padre. He might accept us when we pray that we love Him, but He would very much prefer to say that we have agape for Him.

I'd further like to suggest that there is some heavenly language that we can only dream of hearing someday. How amazing must that language be! If that is the case, then I look forward to being deafened by its beauty, to being blind-sided by its perfect clarity.

And on that day, there will be no more red marks on my completed, obsessed-over, white paper.


Buttercup said...

wow. The second to last paragraph was pure poetry... beautifully articulated. Like the way you think, AC :)

Christie said...

I don't think the title of this post matched the actual post. That was such a beautiful and interesting thought! I love thinking about heaven. Can't wait to get there.

Analyst Catalyst said...

I'm glad you both liked it. It's been kind of staggering for me to think about.