Watch What You Say!

“Watch what you say!” This might be the warning attached to a newly published book on language. A recent review of Untied Kingdom (pun intended), appeared in The Atlantic. The author, Ian Robinson, has long been a language critic, and in this book he presents the relationship between thought and language and the importance of paying attention to both. He maintains that sloppy use of language results in careless thought. Hence, the way we think affects our way we speak (or vice versa).

He makes a dire pronouncement: “Decline of language is the decline of the people who use it.” One may call to mind the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel as a case in point. In a previous book published in the early 1970’s, Robinson surveyed a wide variety of publications and found that the language reflected a country (Britain) in moral and cultural decay. He now blames political correctness for muddying much of the problem with the English language today. For example, “the words “race” and “culture” are so often misused as to have become almost interchangeable. Thus, British citizens who “oppose mass immigration are thus accused of racism” if they lament the loss of a British identity.

He criticizes Britain as a nation that has “lost its mind, a state that prevents it from taking anything seriously.” Offensive words originally meant to shock, often lose their effect when repeated often enough. Then people cease being offended and begin to assimilate the idea. When words lose their meaning, then thought loses meaning, too. Western population faces continuous assault from such offensive words through television shows, songs, movies, and even advertisements, thus eroding basic cultural concepts. What was once deemed unacceptable becomes acceptable when repeated often enough.

The Atlantic’s book reviewer asserts that Americans should understand that the English language problem exists in this country as much as in the United Kingdom. Misuse or non-use of the English language is separating this county, too. He states, “The many immigrants who now refuse to learn more than a little transactional English are in effect saying that an economic community is all they want to be part of . . . Americanness, which once meant so much that only a shared language could carry it all, is contracting to a mere matter of wanting a bigger income.” He makes the point that a national language unifies a country. Without a common tongue, a nation “will end up poorer in economic terms.” If people do not share a language, how can they share a national identity?

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