Literacy Inflation


For some time now, I have been feeling that America’s– and in fact the worlds– need for literacy is becoming more and more urgent.  Increasingly, there is a separation between what people say and what they mean, possibly because they don’t pause long enough to discover what it is that they mean.  In his article In Defense of Literacy, Wendell Berry makes the point that we as a nation are inadvertently destroying our own language by assigning it meaning that it was never meant to represent.  He says, “We will understand the world, and preserve ourselves and our values in it, only insofar as we have a language that is alert and responsive to it, and careful of it.  I mean that literally.  When we give our plows such brand names as “Sod Blaster,” we are imposing on their use conceptual limits which raise the likelihood that they will be used destructively” (Berry).  Berry is here pointing out that although language is one of the most effective ways of communicating with others, and even sometimes with ourselves, we can turn it against ourselves if we’re not careful.  We are becoming a nation that doesn’t see any reason to consider the implications of our words, and ultimately, doesn’t see a reason to think.  This careless misuse of words is more dangerous than most people could ever imagine.  Our words are assigned specific definitions by us, and as long as we use them correctly, their value is maintained, and we have control over them.  However, the value of a word is only what we give it.  As soon as we deviate from this set definition, the word becomes something different from what it was originally meant to be.  It could take on an entirely different definition, or it could, through mass misuse, lose its original definition entirely and thus be lost from our language.  In other words, our words are a finite resource and we are losing our ability to control them.  For example, the word “love” used to be used to give voice to extremely passionate or deep feelings, and thus, everyone knew where they stood when they used it.  However, in today’s language everybody “loves” everything.  They can appear to harbor strong and powerful feelings for just about anything: what they had for dinner, a new friend they just met a few minutes ago, or a T.V. show they barely tolerate.  In this way, when they try to describe something that they bone-deep love, they are at a loss.  They have to try to skirt around the issue and take sentences to explain what should have only taken one perfectly well-placed word.  This word, created to be of service to them, has been squandered and no longer retains its value.  Just in the way that too much money being put into the government renders its value useless, so does flippant usage of language decrease its worth.  This language inflation demands you use more words, like paper money, to service you, and sometimes the words decrease in value enough to no longer be useful at all.  Mark Twain once said “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug” (Twain).  And although the difference between his two examples is decidedly marked, we must heed his warning, lest we allow language to become master over us, and force us into the role of complacent inferior.  In expressing ourselves we must strive for absolute perfection and precision or risk the loss of the only language we have.

*Sorry I haven’t posted for so very long!  I was in Europe, then I was just generally lazy, then I was moving into college at Messiah!



10 thoughts on “Literacy Inflation

  1. Fabulous post! I completely agree. Did you hear about them changing the definition of “literally” so it not only means literal, but can now also be used in the figurative sense? What is the world coming to?

    • What?! But the whole point of saying that something is literal is that it’s literal! It can’t mean the opposite too! Ah, another word ruined. And thank you, by the way.

      • I know! I am hoping that is just a rumor, but I read it in several different places. I know. Why on earth would you change it? You’re welcome. I just got back from Europe too. How was your trip?

      • Lovely! I forced my sister to go to all sorts of foreign bookstores with me. Sometimes the books weren’t even in English, and I would just see one and yell “Wait!”, and stand there for a minute or so, looking at the books I couldn’t understand before plunging back out into the real world. Where did you go?

      • Haha, that sounds wonderful. I went to England for 2 weeks with a friend. We stayed in Bath, which is an absolutely gorgeous city. I bought over a dozen books on my trip, and I started to worry I couldn’t fit them all in my suitcase. 😛 We did make a day trip to Wales while we were there, but otherwise just traveled around England. It’s a beautiful country.

  2. Oh Bath is where I want to go most in the world (because of Jane Austen), but anywhere in England sounds good. I didn’t buy many books in Belgium or France because I couldn’t find many in English, but if I went to England I would be out of control.

  3. Very well done post. I really enjoyed the quote from Mark Twain. As I was reading this I was reminded about a very powerful spoken word piece my Father showed me a few years back.

    Please follow the link and enjoy!

    • That was really cool. I think that even if everybody doesn’t agree with all of the issues he presents, he expresses himself (or whoever wrote that I he didn’t) very well and very powerfully, as you said. I loved the part about how kids should be celebrated for their uniqueness instead of singled out for being different. And I loved how he used such a deliberate style of writing to reinforce his point about choosing the words you say intentionally.

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