Weatherford Democrat

Columns

September 19, 2011

What are words worth?

WEATHERFORD — In life’s literary waters, words are endangered, and half of the world’s languages are circling the drain. Caught up in digital overload, we are victims in the rush that favors speed over accuracy, as well as ever-shortening messages.

Some people — perhaps the same ones who think this would be a questionable time for the meek to inherit the earth — refuse to line up with the “need for speed” crowd. Shrinking in number, they contend that grammar indeed matters.

Alas, texting/emails/voice mails rule the day as the world hurries on.

Though a few are hanging in, half of the planet’s 7,000 languages will be extinct by the end of this century, experts say. On average, two are signing off each month, and many hundreds of languages are spoken by fewer than 50 people each.

One teetering language is spoken by only two men — both in their 80s — in Ayapana, Mexico.

They are said to be “men of few words, indifferent to each other’s company.” Maybe the Ayapanic language is already deceased, lacking only a death certificate.

Words quake at the prospect of dismissal. More in vogue are symbols and abbreviations spewing through space in fragments.

Purists also moan about the dependence on “spell check,” believing that it often makes bad matters worse.

The “app” (yep, that’s a new word) gets “As” on spelling, but “pleads the fifth” on assurance of proper word usage.

A newspaper obituary a while back said the deceased was a longtime “soil conversationalist.”

It is more likely that the writer’s intended reference was to his professional title: “soil conservationist.”

Spell check, obviously, does only that. When wrong words traipse by, spell check police wave ‘em right on through.

Those with eyes to see still may ponder books — the printed kind and others — that have no literary shortcuts. Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything, was a national best-seller.

It’s a fascinating account hundreds of scholars who worked more than 70 years before birthing the Oxford English Dictionary.

There were deliberations aplenty — sometimes marked by feuds — over pronunciation, accent marks, meanings, etc., in “the grandfather of all word-books.” Indeed, wheels turned slowly back when words seem to matter a great deal more.

More recently, James W. Pennebaker’s The Secret Life of Pronouns details fascinating claims that frequency and patterns of word use provide windows into people’s personalities and social connections. A powerful computer program extracted the data.

One example concerns the use of pronouns, specifically “I” words. Examination of the work of 18 poets — half of whom committed suicide — revealed that suicidal writers used far more “I”-related pronouns than the other half that chose to live on.

He also contended that “I” words used sparingly may indicate plans of political leaders to carry out threats. He cited this pattern in the words of Harry Truman before atomic bombs were unleashed, and in Adolf Hitler’s speeches before the invasion of Poland.

Words still come in handy for Garrison Keillor, an absolute artist with words.

He’s just completed a coast-to-coast “Summer Love” tour, with most of the 25 shows sell-outs rewarded by standing ovations. Part of his magic stems from spinning local medleys spun for each city.

We caught his three-hour show in Fort Worth, where his best line described some of today’s youth adorned by metal above the shoulders. “They look like they fell face first into a tackle box,” he said.

Garrison and his entourage covered thousands of miles in a handsome tour bus. Maybe Keillor, now 69, got “travel tips” from a colorful sports personality, John Madden. When coach Madden switched to telecasts, he bade good-bye to flying, opting evermore to favor a well-equipped bus for cross-country travel. (Madden hopes to never hold another plane boarding pass in his hand.)

Madden, too, got a lot out of words, even if simply “boom, zap or zoom.” For him, a golf term claimed for his errant tee-shots also “fits” his approach to life. He calls it “FIDO.” “Forget it, drive on,” he suggests for happiness on the golf course — and in daily life.

It’s tough to argue with this philosophy. Still, we wish for some middle ground between “sticks and stones and the words that will never hurt us.” The thought of the demise of words and languages hurts. Both may some day be buried in adjoining graves.

Dr. Newbury is a speaker in the Metroplex. Send inquiries/comments to: newbury@speakerdoc.com. Phone: 817-447-3872. Web site: www.speakerdoc.com.

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