Linguistic Limbo

It's not what you say. Well, yes it is.



If only we could invest in spoken language. Imagine yourself owning a few shares in the word "dot" in 1990. Would've seen marginal growth, at best. Merely a monosyllabic, three-letter term used in describing the ninth letter of the alphabet, a random mark on a canvas, or married to the prefix "polka" for summer dresses or, even better, bikinis. You surely went months without asking your tongue for the simple, slightly ticklish act of expressing the word.

But today, in 2008? Those shares purchased 18 years ago — if value could be placed on the spoken word — would make Google stockholders tremble with envy. Because if you go so much as a half-day without saying the word "dot" (preceding its new partner-for-life, "com"), you've already won the game of life and live on one of those TV islands that can apparently be moved, or you've chosen the verbal lifestyle of Harpo Marx.

Business titans love it when their creations become verbs (i.e., FedEx, Xerox, or yes, Google). But what of the onetime innocuous words, lost in the pages of Webster's, that come to life as technology, social progress, and fashion reboot the world system — the word system — in which we live?

"Text" is a word never meant to be verbalized. Even when properly expressed — with that inconvenient x-before-t — the word sounds as though the speaker may have a slight lisp. But now we're "texting" each other daily, if not hourly. Had I asked my high-school English teacher — way back in 1987 — to "text me," I would certainly have been sent to the office. Either that, or she would have sat me down privately and, with compassion, worked on my delicate mispronunciation of the word "test."

I find the creation of new words — "email" is the best example — to be a quaint reminder that we're still evolving, that we can carve language as finely (if not as elegantly) as Michelangelo did the Pieta. There was no "curveball" before baseball came along, and if "helix" existed before Watson and Crick did their magic with DNA, it was likely heard only as part of a geometry professor's sneeze. But it's the rebirth of words that have lived long, if quiet, lives that pave new exits and onramps on the information superhighway.

All of which makes me wonder how other creatures among us adjust — elevate? — their communication patterns. Do elephants find new ways to blow through a trunk? Can a lion extend its roar just long enough to make a new — quite intimidating — point to his pride? I'm utterly convinced birds are every bit the linguistic masters we humans claim to be. But I wonder: Do they find new ways to deliver old chirps?

My challenge to you, dear reader, is to remain creative in speaking (at least to those who care enough to listen). Toss aside verbal crutches, adjectives like "unbelievable" or "awesome" that are over-spoken from elementary playgrounds to country clubs. (Why can't a Kobe Bryant dunk be "bewildering," "otherworldly," or "astonishing"? Why only "unbelievable"?) Utilize all the words at your disposal — they can have as few as three letters! — to make the stories you tell and the world you describe singular, one-of-a-kind, dare I suggest . . . original.

"Dot" is living large these days, with "text" riding its cyber-coattails. And it's impossible to guess which humdrum package of letters will next make its way into our everyday banter. (A few I'd love to see: scintilla, dint, or riffle.) The words we speak not only shape the world we live in today, but — and this is scary — describe our world for those who follow us. ("What's a digital age, Daddy?") Let's take the spoken word seriously, and find ways to beautify a sentence between the new blue-chip sounds we utter without pause. Meanwhile, I'm waiting for "webisode" to go public. 

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