03 October 2017

Language Inflation

Inflation. We know it happens to money; that's not exactly news.

I think it happens to other things as well. Like language, for instance. What living in "the information age" means is that we now have a staggering amount of data available to us (and a correspondingly staggering amount of language that accompanies the data to organize and interpret it). We have articles and seminars and presentations and books and blogs and podcasts by the million. But the sheer volume of it all seems to have a cheapening effect on language and how it affects people. Excess of something leads to a decrease in value -- everyone has something to say, and nobody's listening anymore, because one voice among billions is just so much empty noise.

It's not just an issue of quantity, though. I have a theory (without firsthand evidence, mind you) that, once upon a time, human language used to possess some sort of intrinsic power that it no longer has, at least not to the degree it once did. If you've ever read the Biblical stories of famous blessings and curses, you might have some idea of what I'm getting at.

In Old Testament times, speaking a blessing over someone had great effect. The very words themselves were imbued with tremendous authority and life-giving (or life-destroying) power, as with Isaac’s blessing of Jacob in Genesis 27:1-29. There was only one blessing to be given, and it was powerful: Once spoken, it could not be revoked or amended, and whatever was said would certainly come true. Such was also the case with cursing, which was why Balaam's assignment to curse Israel (and the fact that he ended up blessing them instead) was such a big deal (Numbers 22:1-35).

Now, when we “bless” someone, all we're really doing is saying nice things about them -- wishing them well. Or even just acknowledging the fact that they sneezed (though you wouldn't hear any complaints from me if that tradition fell by the wayside). Likewise, when we "curse", we're only saying a four letter word. It's not an especially classy way to talk, but our "curse" doesn't have any real power to inflict physical harm on anyone. (Thank goodness!) Someone's spoken blessings and curses are nothing more than expressions of either goodwill or ill will -- or, in some cases, annoyance that there so many idiots on the road at rush hour.

Why this loss of power and efficacy in language? Was it just some special circumstance for Bible times? I don't know for sure. Considering how prolifically we speak, write, and publish these days, maybe it's not an entirely bad thing. Imagine how much potential for damage there would be! It does strike me as a little sad, though, because we have lost that amazing capacity for blessing (and being blessed), as well.

There is one notable exception. "Help yourself to the coffee" always counts as a blessing! (And it always has positive results.)

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