November 17, 2017

We need a language beat


Politics and language have always been linked in overt and implicit ways. During last year’s presidential campaign and in the post-election environment, many people began to note the multifarious slipperiness and co-optations of words, such as substituting “alt-right” for “Nazi” and “white supremacist.”

Now, nearly eleven months in, it is impossible not to acknowledge that securing the meanings of words apart from their normalizing distortions has become an important political activity. In reality, it always was; just ask George Orwell. For that matter, ask Socrates. Doing so now is a pressing need, not only because egregious examples are proliferating, but also because right-minded people are struggling to hang on to a previous reality, built on words, that’s eroding. The sentiment of our utterances is changing already.

Immediately after the election, Masha Gessenin a podcast interview with ProPublica, called for a “language beat” to track the erosions. But here’s a reality check that I hope isn’t merely pedantic: language consists of more than words. This gives the writer interested in politics, language, and the shifting of realities many topics to tackle beyond lexicography and semantics. As someone who’s been writing about language and linguistics for a long time—I consider myself a “language journalist”—here are some that I have my eyes on:

So don’t get me wrong — paying attention to words and how their meanings are shaded for political ends can serve as a crucial bulwark against the normalization of this appalling political moment. In normal times, selecting the words of the year vividly underscores the dynamism of language; now we’re looking for new punctuational devices to end the sentences in which those words appear. But language itself and the inequities associated with it (follow Language on the Move and Nelson Flores for more) have been so normalized that most people, including journalists, take its existence for granted. The language beat that Gessen called for? It could have already existed, even without Trump.



Michael Erard is writer in residence at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands and is author of Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners (Free Press, 2012).