Losing Language

I read a brief article this week about scientists who are tracking the ways words are evolving and, with increasing speed, becoming obsolete as our “social, political, and technological” needs amend our language. You can read it here: http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/338884/title/Modern_era_brings_death_to_words

These scientists used a tool created by Google, called the “N-gram Project,” which accesses word histories derived from 4% of the books published (since 1800) in seven different languages. If you use this link, you can type in any two words, choose any years between 1800 and 2008, select a language, and compare how frequencies of the words’ use have evolved over this time, given the stated parameters. ([Go to])

I love words; in fact, I wrote a book about language, using words as the characters (http://lionap.com/word.html.), so I was eager to read the article and check out the N-gram link.

Of course, such studies and tools always create as many questions as they answer. I noticed, for instance, that the article didn’t mention if the scientists had a stated interest in how our other needs, like those related to our emotional, spiritual, religious or philosophical well-being, have affected the evolution of language. And I wondered about the genres of the 4% of books scanned for the study. The article didn’t clarify whether the texts used represented the entire Dewey spectrum or not. Still, it was fun to visit the N-gram page, type in two words, play with the other factors, and see what happened.

But I can’t say I worry too much when studies discuss the “death of language;” to paraphrase Mark Twain, I find these reports greatly exaggerated. As a lifelong logophile, I know language is alive and continuously evolving. When I fear that a people who communicate through texting linguistic amputations will annihilate our language faster than it can endure or renew itself, I look at the  number of well-written blogs available, or publishers’ booklists (including e-books), or the Facebook posts that reflect eloquent, witty, and thoughtful use of language.

More than I fear civilization’s language devolution, I worry about my own. I find my own menopausal brain fog increasingly leading me to the middle of sentences with no traditional (i.e., “verbal”) way of finding my way out. Rather than moving with ease to the next word, I find myself completely and instantly halted, as though the language train has arrived at the edge of a great and bottomless void that wasn’t on the track moments before. I back up and try again, often resorting to synonyms, or charades, or other clues to guide my listeners through what I’d supposed to be a droll, or at least interesting, informational nugget.

What a thrill it can be these days when I complete a thought and then share it, fully, in under a few minutes. Or hours.

Often, my companions suffer from similar language retention challenges. Someone mentions a movie or television program she’s seen recently. We all nod in recognition, excitedly, and then the fun begins. Fools rush in.

Guest: “I watched the Sondheim Birthday Celebration on PBS again last night.”

Me: “Oh, I enjoyed that, too…wasn’t [synapse explosion] um, that guy who was in Princess Bride—Inigo Montoyasinging with [fog rolls across mental landscape] you know; the woman who sings like this (mimes pouting lips)? You know, Sunday in the Park With…the artist who painted dots? Finishing the Hat?”

Guest: “You mean Mandy Patinkin? Yes. He sang with [poof!], um—yeah, I know who you mean…She was in…um” (Pouts lips; sings part of line from Hard Knock Life; stops midway, forgetting lyric.)

Husband: “Bernadette Peters?”

Guest and I: “Yes!”

All: (Laughing, amused, grateful; only somewhat tentative about proceeding. No one tries to retrieve name of pointillist artist.)

Me: (Boldly venturing out once more on the ice pond of discourse): “I enjoyed when Sondheim’s leading ladies came out towards the end of the program and each covered a hit. Elaine Stritch did an amazing rendition of I’m Still Here.” (Mentally pirouette and settle back into couch for earned rest, clearly the conversation’s victor at this point.)

Guest: (Palpably relieved to have no identity minefields to navigate): “Oh, it was wonderful. She must be in her mid-eighties, and she was jumping and singing…the audience just loved it. I’ve always enjoyed Elaine Stritch.”

Me: (Revived; heady with victory; ignoring husband’s hand signals to quit while ahead): “But the best performance of the entire evening was by [neural freeze] oh, um—you know… (singing) Don’t cry for me, Argentina! She was in that…not by Sondheim, but that other guy… (singing) Listen to the music of the night…that composer. She was in…wait! I know: Evita!” (Momentarily semi-smug.)

Husband: “Audra McDonald?”

Guest: “?”

Me: “No. You know…she was in the Gypsy revival. Her mouth kind of slants, like this… (Singing, from left side of mouth) Everything’s coming up roses…”

Husband and Guest: “??”

Eventually, we all tire of this activity and lapse into safe and pleasant silence until it’s time (9:00) to say goodnight, a word we can all manage.

Me: (3 A.M., sitting up in bed, suddenly awake): “Patti Lupone! Georges Seurat! Andrew Lloyd Weber!” (Instantly lie down; return to sleep.)


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6 thoughts on “Losing Language

  1. This is great. I once tried to introduce two people to each other, and I completely forgot their names. I stood there in a complete fog until they saved me and introduced themselves.


  2. I find this a very interesting subject, Catherine, even though I couldn’t really follow some of the example because I am unfamiliar with a lot of your native culture. Still, I did want to comment, because though what you described might at first seem connected to loss of memory, or difficulty with language, as I continued to read, I became convinced that it was a problem of having too many random thoughts and stimuli. It could be that you and your friends are not getting enough free time to digest all the thoughts and subjects that are constantly being added to your conscious mind. Time out for meditation… or just the appreciation of nature, or listening to music… could, I believe, solve the problem of those forgotten names and words.


  3. Very good points, Shimon! This was just a parody, though, not a true example of our conversations. Sometimes, menopause causes a fog that momentarily settles and then lifts. I figure it’s better to laugh than fret.


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