Thursday, April 10, 2014

Language as Communication, Big Words, Liturgy, Preaching

First watch this video:

I haven't read the study itself, nor do I plan to, but I think Derek's break down of the study shows clearly how deeply embedded is our modern society's emphasis on language as communication rather than expression. We like language that communicates clearly and succinctly. Even further, we prefer clear communication that uses small words than big words, even if it takes more small words to communicate the same thing.

Case in point. In the English translation (2010) of the Roman Missal for the Novus Ordo liturgy, "one in being" was replaced with the more Latinate "consubstantial" in the Nicene Creed. People asked, "What does 'consubstantial' mean?" The response: "one in being" (ish). Why was the change made, then, it was asked. People dislike the new translation because it has bigger words, more complex sentences, and unusual phrasing that follows the way the Latin language works more than the English.

So, as Derek pointed out, this goes to show that as a society we prefer and (unconsciously) assume that language is mostly supposed to be about communication.

And yet we cannot get rid of language as expression, under which "style" falls. Even Derek's presentation of this Princeton study required a certain style that was "simple." Language distilled to the most basic elements of communication is still itself a way of expressing meaning, and its furthest reduction is the input/output of a computer program reading code. Code is language in its purest communicative form.

But if we simply wanted language as communication, why don't we speed this whole thing up and bring it to its logical conclusion by changing English into code instead? Texting and online chat has been a huge catalyst in pushing this transformation of language into pure communication.

The question must be asked: can people who both regularly text and realize what their texting is contributing to (that is, the whole process of the reduction of language into pure "code" communication) actually appreciate language as expression?

It seems to me that there is a dichotomy when these two aspects of language are pressed further and further. They have to exist in balance, not as ends but as principles, as a framework. The balance seems to be determined by factors like context and circumstances, audience, message, time, etc.

Thus, of course, people who are accustomed to seeing and using language as communication will be repelled by expressive language and an evocative style, such as the style intrinsic to liturgical form as it has organically evolved through the centuries in all of the rites. Just look at how the Blessed Mother is described, for example, in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: "... our most holy, most pure, most-blessed and glorious Lady, the Mother of God and ever-Virgin Mary...." All of this description would seem to the modern man useless and its inclusion incomprehensible. "OK," he might say, "It's nice that Mary is obviously revered with all these titles, but why can't we just say something like, 'Blessed Virgin Mary'," and if he's generous, he might add, "Mother of God."
This distaste for bigger, more complicated words also suggests to me that the default reaction of a person towards the Holy Mass, especially if it is in, say, Latin, would be one of utter boredom, confusion, and perhaps contempt. Everything about the Holy Mass—the words, the gestures, etc.—are expressive. Why the incense? Why not simply just quote Revelation and recall that our prayers rise like incense? Isn't that enough? Why face "East"? Why a quiet voice now and a loud voice then? Why bells? Why kneel? Why consubstantial (or rather consubstantialem Patri)?

And then we see that the Holy Ghost, as a soul becomes more sensitive to His inner movements and promptings, teaches a soul the sensitivity and reflexivity required to appreciate such things, not only intellectually, but affectively and effectively—with the heart and will. The Holy Ghost's groanings within us—aren't those a form of lingual expression that transcend our understanding? And yet prayer is still made on our behalf to the Father. This is a deeply mystical reality. Even the mystics say that they cannot say what they experience in contemplation. How can it be communicated or even expressed in human terms? But something meaning-full is still happening, something still directed and perfused by the Logos

But there can be a way to overemphasize language as expression. It is the rhetorical flourishes that serve to obscure and dilute a communication. It's the Baroque taken to its extreme, to the point that what is fundamental has been lost sight of for the lesser, smaller things.

Perhaps this is why holy preaching is the most effective preaching. I suspect that, no matter what people culturally believe about language as communication, expressive language is still so fundamentally human that it can't be avoided, and because of that fact, effective preaching from a Saint can pierce straight to the heart and will. As long as preaching isn't holy, there is the danger of speaking too tersely, speaking with a barren quality, or there is the danger of speaking too eloquently, with such abundance and redundance of flourishing that it must be questioned if the speaking is a matter of pride. But holy preaching will reach the right balance because the Holy Ghost, the breath of the Perfect Speaker (or perhaps Spoken?), is directing.



Another thought struck me—as our society moves away from expressive language (to the extent that it can), our language has become increasingly banal and, paradoxically, full of superfluous interjections.

Example: "I know...go to the...thing...I don't know...."

It is as though we are trying to make up for the lack of expression by inserting filler words. The poet Taylor Mali was very observant on the effects of this rapid change in language:

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