A month ago, mid-October, a gust of autumnal wind kicked its way down Grand Street. A co-op woman, old, tired, Jewish, fake drops of jade spread across the little sacks of her bosom, looked up at the pending wind and said one word: “Blustery.” Just one word, a word meaning no more than “a period of time characterized by strong winds,” but it caught me unaware, it reminded me of how language was once used, its precision and simplicity, its capacity for recall. Not cold, not chilly, blustery.
-Gary Shteyngart, ‘Super Sad True Love Story’
I cringe every time I see language misused, which happens to be far too often nowadays. “Your awesome” or “there books” or “I literally died.” Why does it matter? My ten year old brother tells me every time I correct him, “you’re such a grammar police; I don’t care.” Why does it matter when the spelling is off? Everyone knows what meaning is really intended. “You’re awesome” and “your awesome” communicate the same message if people understand it, and that’s what counts.
Language is used to communicate, yes. But is that really all? Of course it isn’t. Why would anyone read The Great Gatsby if they could just read “riches don’t buy you love and happiness,” or read Harry Potter if they could just read “love conquers all”? If language was for the sole purpose of communicating, what becomes the point of literature, of Shakespeare and Atwood, of the billions of stories with simplistic messages, or even with no messages? Language, in all its beauty, is art. It is a weapon, a tool, a guardian of memory. It brought far away galaxies to life when science couldn’t. It brought magic portals to our very own wardrobes and birthed heroes who sailed the seas for a decade to get home. Words are the greatest magic humankind has been blessed with. How can we disregard all its subtlety and nuances? How can we insult it by reducing that power to mere communication that one-cell organisms could master?
Doubt thou the stars are fire,
Doubt that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love.
-William Shakespeare, ‘Hamlet’
Are we really going to say that that has the same meaning as “ily<3”? I don’t want to just communicate with my words; I want to evoke. I want to paint the future and raise the dead. Language enables the expression of passion, euphoria, melancholy. That is a truth I fear many are forgetting. We are in an age when children are no longer forced to read books in school, only newspaper articles. Short, concise, useful. It is in our power to create something great, something more than plain fact. What’s the point of all our knowledge, all our rich vocabulary, if not to use it as best we can? Art is an experience. Art is not water; it is wine. It is not essential to existing, but it is the reason for living. It is this ephemeral beauty that I cling to every day.
“The 20th-century nightmare scenario where books were burned has been replaced by the 21st-century scenario, where nobody really cares enough to burn them.” -Gary Shteyngart
So knowledgeable of life, and so ignorant of living. Is that what we’ve become?