The Cultural Dynamics of Language

LanguageD. Bryan Schaeffer    12/8/14
“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” George Orwell, 1984  •  On university campuses and elsewhere nationwide, the millennial generation uses linguistic expressions in English that are foreign to this author’s youthful (and now not so youthful) embrace of the study of both spoken and visual (artistic) languages.  When examining grammatical rules, memorizing definitions and conjugative tenses, and applying a certain level of practical experience to the usefulness of verbal communication, the supposed fixed meanings of the learned words inculcate in the fledgling speaker (or writer or reader) a nuanced comprehension of the culture that utilizes the language.  Even though specific aspects of languages change and shift over time, the underlying structural components remain the same; meaning, the significance of a culture’s identity inheres in the quotidian framework of language and its concomitant understood definitions as attested to by the timeless application of agreed upon core regulative linguistic rules.

Recently I have heard myriad undergraduate students in multiple campus settings unthinkingly change the meanings of heretofore agreed upon definitional words, thereby altering the very substance of cultural parameters and dynamics.  The now banal and inexcusably misused phrases “I killed it,” “I crushed it,” “I win” (when no game is being played) and other immature expressions (such as the inexplicable, unfathomable, and unconscionable “I raped it”) have indelibly impacted the deleterious manner in which the millennial generation is verbally transforming our culture. For definitions to not only change the words we use but also the meanings attached to them, the seed of cultural doubt and derision must be planted and subsequently cultivated through a determined process of the symbolic transference of rhetorical association (read: the sour and spoiled fruits of government takeover of our educational system).[pullquote]As J.K. Rowling wrote in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: “Anyone can speak Troll. All you have to do is point and grunt.”  But we, you see, ought not attempt to be trolls.[/pullquote]

Confucius once stated “If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.” This quotation, and the universal truths underscored by the philosopher’s perspicacious employment of language itself, axiomatically produces an expressive panoply of morally indispensable and anciently known correctives to the deterioration of civilization. Namely, that language is primary and therefore ought not be incorrect; that the words we utilize carry weight because, by their agreed upon and traditionally sourced definition, they are imbued by and embedded with the cultural codes of our civil social order.

In a generational difference highlighted not only by the wrinkles established on my face but by the wrinkles now encroaching upon the very wires of our linguistic interchanges, the millennials brazenly believe in their distortion of language or simply ignore it. Their denigration of our once verbally masterful expedition into the higher realms of creative linguistic expression through the use of pitiful phraseologies like “I killed it,” demonstrates a lack of educational erudition as well as an emptying of cultural meaning that used to elevate both individuals and groups of people.

To self-satisfyingly state “I crushed it,” within the context of scoring well on an examination or performing wonderfully in athletics, signals a salient ingredient in the current millennial milieu, which is really a persistent mindset of rhapsodizing about completed mundane activities as ontologically superior in their very fruition.  When receiving a stellar grade for a presentation or test, which is truly the accepted expectation of most college classes nowadays, many millennials boast of the result.  This reactive and narcissistic centering of self in front of others dovetails with another favored locution: “I win.”  To witness this simple dyadic expression, this infantile linguistic composition uttered from twenty-five year olds is a veritable nightmare, a cultural mirror reflecting the progress of our communicative regression.

In the postmodern milieu of relativism and the shifting sands of signification in action, meaning, and language, the millennial generation thrives.  Unfortunately, this heralds a disturbing view of tomorrow’s horizon, of the possible beauty, education, and intelligible definitions that point to the good, the right, and the true of our civilizational antecedents.  It also indicates that as our language is denigrated, so is our culture.  Our identity is inextricably intertwined with our linguistic choices!  What we write and say produces the dynamic cultural process of self-imposed boundaries that define not only who we are, but who we desire to become.  As J.K. Rowling wrote in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: “Anyone can speak Troll. All you have to do is point and grunt.”  But we, you see, ought not attempt to be trolls.  In order for our civilization to not only survive in the present but thrive in the future, the language with which we trace our very humanity will frame the identifiable characteristics of our aspirational advances as a nation, as a culture, and as individuals.


D. Bryan Schaeffer is currently a PhD candidate in Art History at The Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. His areas of interest are the visual cultures of ancient Mesoamerica and the indigenous languages of Mexico and Guatemala. • (1271 views)

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10 Responses to The Cultural Dynamics of Language

  1. Anniel says:

    What a great article. Many people are so empty of any language skills it’s frightening, and the words they do use are noxious to the soul. Having a good conversation can be tedious beyond belief when you constantly have to define your meaning in order to be understood at all.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    One concern I have is with the disappearance of precise meanings. In theory, the words “insure” and “ensure” are different, but today they’re treated as the same thing. Words such as “naughty” and “mean” used to have specific meanings; now, in common usage, they’re generic words to describe bad behavior. (This may be less true in Britain, at least for “mean”. Note that it’s clear that the Beatles’ “Mean Mr. Mustard” refers to a miser, which is the precise meaning.) We have far more such generic words than we need, and often too few specific ones.

    • Timothy — I share your concern and the concerns of the author. Languages will always change — that can’t be stopped. And they will always change toward simplification: fewer verb tenses, the loss of differences like “less” and “fewer,” etc. That I just steel myself to deal with, but the changes that result from blatant dishonesty — those make me nuts. Like saying that threatening to kill an enemy combatant is torture. It’s frightening.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        I wonder if you’ve suffered through any of Steven Pinker’s apologetics for degraded language. True, as he says, crude regional dialects might contain the same minimal and functional semantic content. But richness and proper use of language not only is a mark of the civilized man, but it helps to civilize the man. If one can express thoughts more refined and complex than found in a Dick-and-Jane primer, one can understand life in richer detail as well.

        One of the divides (linguistic or otherwise) that we frequently run into is the result of an education system (and culture) that are dumbed-down. It thus becomes difficult to communicate ideas more meaningful and nuanced than Dick-and-Jane. No wonder so many are attracted to simplistic feel-good bumper-sticker slogans as a replacement for thinking. It may be all that some people can do. (And, yes, whether I’m enjoying the book or not, this is likely why I will force myself to read more of David Copperfield. This isn’t Dick-and-Jane stuff.)

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Actually, I like a lot of Pinker’s material. His book on regular and irregular inflections was especially interesting. He does a nice job of explaining why regular inflections tend to replace uncommon irregular inflections. (It would be nice to see an explanation of how “went” — presumably the originally past tense of “wend” — became the past tense of “go” instead.) It’s also interesting that despite this pattern, the past tense of “sneak” has gone from the regular “sneaked” to the irregular “snuck” over the past century or so.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            I’ve read a couple of his books and generally enjoyed them. No one thinker (or Pinker) holds the key to life in just one book. I like to read a lot of sources. But I just thought it was funny how he politicized one of his specialties (language) by being an apologist for Ebonics. Languages do change. But let’s not confuse “change” with “degrade.”

            I’m still learning the English language myself. I’m still not sure when to use “whom.” Reading good writers is generally the cure for most problems because that is how one develops an innate ear for what is right.

            As for sneaked/snuck, I’d probably use “snuck” if my tongue was slightly planted in my cheek or I was trying to sound more folksy. I would use “sneaked” if trying to sound a bit more formal or erudite.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              “Who” is used as a subject (like “I” or “he”) and “whom” as an object (like “me” or “him”). The really tricky thing is when the object is separated enough from the verb that using “whom” sounds pretentious, or when the pronoun is the subject of a phrase or clause that is itself the object of a verb (in which case “who” should be used, but “whom” often is).

  3. Rosalys says:

    English has so many words, especially American English which has many borrowed words from other languages, due to our cultural pot whether it be melting or not. And our individual words are expanding in definition to mean contradictory things so as to mean so much and therefore become meaningless. It looks like our language is contracting.

    What’s worse than what is done out of ignorance? It’s the intensional destruction and changing of definition by the left. The left destroys everything. Why should they leave the language alone?

    • Timothy Lane says:

      This was the point of Newspeak (a concept developed from Orwell’s own “Politics and the English Language”). As usual, liberals use Orwell’s dystopian fears as a guide, not a warning.

  4. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    Confucius once stated “If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.”

    I couldn’t have said it better myself, oh I did say it about 2,500 years ago and it still holds true.

    This is why the Left is generally for dumbing down the people. If excellence is pursued, things will not fall apart and the tyrants will have difficulty taking over.

    A problem can only be solved if we are able to clearly articulate what it is.

    The promiscuous use of language is something like the cultural relativism which has infected our country. All expressions are equally valid.

    Modern advertising has much to answer for. The loose and misleading use of language which is employed by these purveyors of trash has infected the nation. It leads to obfuscation and misunderstanding in all areas of life. This is just what dishonest politicians and marketers want, an ignorant populace.

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