Friday, 18 October 2013


Global Language Monitor claims that the English language comprises over one million different words. Even the Oxford Dictionaries, though claiming less, reckon we have about 250 thousand to choose from. I'm sure other entities would claim greater or lesser numbers but the thing to recognise is this; we who use the English language to communicate have a lot of words at our disposal. 

The reason I've decided to write about this today is that I'm becoming a bit despondent reading comments on social media that comprise so few words and often words of an unpleasant nature. You know the ones I mean; the ones we have labelled 'swear' words. The Oxford defines 'swearing' as "use of offensive language, especially as an expression of anger." If that's right, then there are a lot of angry people out there; especially our younger folk. I guess they have plenty to be angry about, but offensive language doesn't really help anything. Younger people, you are our hope for the future; swearing about stuff that you don't like won't change it. Find out what you can do and become pro-active to see change in the world. Resorting to offensive language gives the impression that the writer is not all that intelligent, whether it is true or not. It gives the impression that they don't have the vocabulary to say what they really want to say. It's not that I don't notice the well written contributions, I do, but the blatantly offensive comments splashed about like they are everyday language really concern me.

Of course, I recognise that offensive is a subjective term, and that what is offensive to some is quite okay to someone else, but I think we have a common understanding for the most part about what is okay to say in general public comment and what is considered offensive. Some people get a kick out of being offensive in their remarks, or are wanting to make a strong point. Am I wrong in thinking that their position might be better advanced by being able to actually explain what the problem is? It seems that often there are rash and sometimes rude statements made but that there is not really any room for discussion. I notice that many people are very quick to point out problems and to condemn situations, people or beliefs but are not willing to listen to the opinions of others. I wonder how often the people who make those harsh statements of anger against life in general realise how those words piece the hearts and minds of others who read them? I wonder if they understand that words are so powerful; that they breed more words and give rise to feelings in others. I guess that is where the power is in bullying too; in words. 

Sticks and stone will break my bones but names (words) will never hurt me. An old ditty I heard in the school ground often as a kid. Wrong. Words sting and burn and scar. They rip people's hearts out and make them cry. Sticks and stone might give you wounds that can be seen with the eyes, but words inflict wounds that can only be seen with the heart. Learn how to use words to do good in the world. Learn about words so that you can communicate more effectively with others.

The primary edict for teachers is to teach literacy. Numeracy and other subject areas are there too, of course, but literacy, literacy, literacy is the catch-cry across the nation; across the globe. What does it mean to be literate? Does it mean being able to read and write? Partly, yes, but that is not all. Being literate means having a range of ways to communicate and the knowledge of how and when to use those ways. It means being able to choose what is appropriate for different situations. It means being able to express yourself in order to have your needs met, or to clarify and understand when communicating with another human being. Being literate means availing yourself of an amazing array of words that allow you to articulate precisely what you mean. Being literate means being an active user of language to function effectively in our society. It means being able to interpret messages from others, to analyse written and other texts in order to make decisions. It means being able to discern what is reasonable information and what is not. Another old adage comes to mind - Don't believe everything you see (hear, read). It's important to be able to gather evidence to support an idea or statement. It's important to ask if something makes sense when it's measured up against other knowledge you have.

Seeing so many swear words showing up in social media causes me to worry that we are, generation by generation, becoming less literate. This disturbs me so much as I am, among other things, a lexophile. I am passionate about words. I am thrilled by the number of different ways there are to say something. We have so many words to choose from so that we can affect nuance...hint at things not so plain to see. Being literate means being able to read between the lines; to draw inference. To wonder at least about what is not being said. Being literate means being able to ask questions about things read or heard. What is really meant by this? What is the emotion or motivation behind it. Who is the message for? What outcomes was the author hoping for? What did the author want you to feel, think or do?

Every time you write or say something, you become the author of those words. They stick. That's how important it is to think about what you're saying or writing. A friend who is involved in human resource management and recruitment has told me that the first things employment companies do when they get applications is log on to Facebook and start checking people out. They can glean a lot of information about a person from there. They can see the kind of language they use. That first step can determine whether that applicant remains on the list to be considered for an interview or not. What you write is important. It reflects, rightly or wrongly, the sort of person you are. At least it gives an impression. Today is the day for old adages. This is one I've heard quite often too - If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it's a duck. 
I guess the trick is to decide what kind of duck you'd like to be seen as, and make sure that's the picture you're painting with what you do and say...and write. 

Well, that's probably about the end of my little rant for today. It's almost midnight here, and my bed is calling me. I suppose it would be fair of me, though, to share some ideas for people who would like to improve their personal literacy. If you can communicate your ideas more clearly, you are more likely to be understood. You are more likely to have your needs met. It's worth the effort really. 

Read more.
Join the local library.
Write letters or cards to friends or family. 
Use descriptive language to tell about something in more detail.
Pick up a pen and write a poem or a song.
Google the lyrics for a song you like. What are they actually saying?
Indulge in conversation with others. 
Use a dictionary when you come across a word that's unfamiliar.
Talk to people instead of playing games on your Iphone.
Listen to people who are willing to talk to you.
Ask questions about advertising - who benefits if you buy the product?
Ask questions about research that backs products - who financed the research?
Read more. 
Online articles.
Cereal boxes. 
Anything really.

Share your ideas below. 
With love, Kerry

PS Here's a lovely word for you. Penumbra. It means the edge of the halo of light produced by a candle. How beautiful to have a word for that. That's the magic of our language. Spell-binding.

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