Several columns in the last year have been devoted to the importance of learning how to use conservative vocabulary about traditional American values to express progressive ideas. It’s the only way to attract the votes of the center-right, and perhaps give pause to a few on the farther right.
Today I want to talk about vocabulary in another way. Ideas can be expressed only through the vocabulary we have, which may seem obvious but it’s not. One can be a deep thinker able consider profound ideas, yet limited in saying anything about them for lack of vocabulary that accommodates them. Many who read these short essays are well educated, and have extensive vocabularies to verbalize with comfortable ease matters historical, philosophical, scientific and theological. But consider what it’s like to struggle with a second or third language where vocabulary is limited to hello, goodbye, my name is, where’s the toilet, and how much does it cost. The well formed idea of may be there, but what can be said about it without an adequate vocabulary? Frustrating isn’t it?
Each of us has our limitations. Travels in Asia drove home for me the humiliating experience of having a limited vocabulary, and of being completely illiterate in the written language. I have a local friend, a professor of geology, we understand each other as long as we’re talking history, politics, anthropology, or the beauties of the land. When I ask about a rock and he dives into geological jargon, I’m lost and he’s just babbling. Conversely, anything theological is worse than babble to him. Babble or not, we should be able to appreciate each other’s depth of knowledge, and forgive each other’s ignorance without judgment or embarrassment. In general, and among our peers, were good at extending that courtesy to one another.
The same cannot be said of those whose formal education in the liberal arts and sciences is limited, or non existent. Embarrassment is thick. They’re likely to assume others think them stupid, and they may be right about that. Those with larger vocabularies in the arts and sciences can be arrogantly smug about it. The lack of an educated vocabulary too often implies a lack of intelligence and an inability to have profound thoughts about important matters. The use of available vocabulary to give it a shot can appear crude, simplistic, or just a wandering stream of words adding up to nothing. It’s one of the realities of life contributing to class based estrangement and polarization that can lead to violence. On other hand, it’s also one of the realities of life contributing to new forms of art, music and literature as acts of defiance against the elite.
It’s part of the human condition, and has been for millennia. Maybe it’s not a problem and doesn’t need solving beyond a greater willingness to show patience and good will toward each other, especially the other who is not like us. If it is a problem in need of solution, here are a couple of possibilities.
Sell education in the arts and sciences as a way to express thoughts so others will listen and understand, rather than as forced accumulations of facts and dates. It’s a tool like any other tool, and knowing how to use it can make a difference in life.
Sneak continuing adult education into the nooks and crannies of every training session of any kind for any reason.
Be respectful and patient in conversation with others struggling to express themselves. Offer, if they want, some new words to help give meaning to their thoughts so others will better understand them.
Honor the language they have and you don’t. It may be of a skilled trade, or a profession far removed from yours, or a way of life that succeeds for them, but at which you would be a failure.
Accept the possibility that street language can sometimes express complex ideas as well as classroom language: not always, and not everywhere, but sometimes.