A Creature of Language

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by John Zielinski

In January of 2018 Newsweek published a piece claiming that Donald Trump speaks at a 4th grade level. It further went on to claim that this was the lowest level of the past 15 presidents. Many people took this to be a bad thing. Is it?

As I write this piece I’m sitting alone in a room at a desk. I have specific ideas that I want to communicate by way of the written word. I know nothing about the people who will read these words. For that matter, I don’t know if anyone beyond my editor will actually read them. I do know that it’s highly improbable that my readers will all have the same educational background and life experience as I, or what the age of any individual reader will be. For some, English may not be their primary language. Along the way I’ve learned that people who learned English as a second or third language interpret words and phrases in ways that may be surprising to a native speaker of US English. (We’ll save discussion of US and British English for another time.) Then there’s the matter of time. There will definitely be days between when I submit this for publication and when it becomes available to a general audience. Things will happen and those things will color the perceptions of readers. A word that’s considered harmless today could be considered differently tomorrow. How do I choose my words?

Early in my career I was compelled by an employer to take a class in “business writing.” I was not long out of university and thought that such a class was redundant in light of all of the writing classes that I had taken over the years. On top of that, I’d already written pieces that had appeared in national publications. It turns out that I learned a great deal. Possibly the most important thing that I learned was that my own Flesch-Kincaid score was way too high for business communication. The target in that class was to get my writing down to an 8th or 9th grade level as that’s considered “plain English.” Think about that for a minute. The working assumption was that average business people don’t even read at a high school level. That was nearly 40 years ago. I fear that the average level has moved downward since then.

People of a certain age may remember comedian Norm Crosby. I always loved his act. Mr. Crosby built an entire career on malapropisms. Now, each of us has misused a word or phrase on occasion without realizing our error. Crosby’s bit was filled with misuses. What’s important, though, is that the routine was only funny if you knew what the word that he chose meant and what the correct word was. Along the way I’ve encountered people who never caught the humor in Norm’s act because they lacked the necessary vocabulary. That scared me. Norm Crosby’s bits weren’t based on what some people call “five-dollar words.” They were based on words that ordinary people should have been able to recognize.

On her 1986 album Home of the Brave Laurie Anderson included a track titled “Language Is A Virus.” The title is from a quote attributed to William S. Burroughs. “Language is a virus from outer space.” While this may seem to be a silly statement, consider how language spreads. “Like a virus, language is a nonliving pattern of information, a configuration of meaning that attaches itself to consciousness, a program waiting to be executed, changing both the consciousness it infects and morphing its very own structure as it replicates itself. There is no defense against the virus of language except perhaps death. Predating us, the virus of language will be infecting other consciousnesses long after we are dust.” [Keith Aoki, Introduction: Language Is a Virus, 53 U. Miami L. Rev. 961 (1999)] Mr. Burroughs’ original quote, Ms. Anderson’s piece and Mr. Aoki’s assessment predate the days of social media and the current meaning of “viral” content. There’s no doubt that language is a virus. Look no further than how the phrase “fake news” has infiltrated the vocabulary.

One of my favorite wordsmiths was George Carlin. As with all great comedy, his was rooted in truth. In his stand-up routines and in his books, Carlin highlighted the foolishness of language. “You can get on the plane. I’m going to get in the plane.” Perhaps more importantly, he highlighted that changes in language are used to manipulate points of view.

“Poor people used to live in slums. Now ‘the economically disadvantaged’ occupy ‘substandard housing’ in the ‘inner cities.’ And a lot of them are broke. They don’t have ‘negative cash flow.’ They’re broke! Because many of them were fired. In other words, management wanted to ‘curtail redundancies in the human resources area,’ and so, many workers are no longer ‘viable members of the workforce.’ Smug, greedy, well-fed white people have invented a language to conceal their sins. It’s as simple as that.” [George Carlin, Napalm & Silly Putty, Hyperion, 2001]

As I consider how words like “hero,” “patriot,” and “lie” have had their meanings compromised to the point of being meaningless, I come back to an idea that few people ever consider. What constitutes “chairness”?

When someone tells you that they’re sitting in a chair you may not know exactly what kind of chair is involved, but you’ll probably come up with something that nearly everyone would agree constitutes a chair. It won’t be a stool. It won’t be a sofa. It won’t be the ground. We have general agreement on the attributes of what makes a chair a chair, and what makes a chair different from other things on which someone can sit. Do we have general agreement on what makes something “fake” or a lie?

Let’s go back to the first paragraph. Is it a bad thing for someone to communicate at a fourth-grade level? If the mean level of English comprehension in the US is at an 8th or 9th grade level, then (assuming a normal distribution) that indicates that there are a large number of people whose comprehension is significantly lower than that. That suggests that attempting to communicate at a 4th grade level may not be such a bad idea especially for a politician. Here’s a quick comprehension test. Which would you rather have, one and a half million dollars or one million and a half dollars? Did you recognize the difference between those two?

As a parting shot, I ran an evaluation on this piece. Its Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is 6.5 indicating appropriateness for an age of 11.5. Please don’t consider that a reflection of either my command of the English language or my assumption about your ability to comprehend what I’ve written. After all, I’m a creature of language.

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