An assault on language

My assumptions about civility are at great risk. I’m tired of people who talk loudly on their cell phones in public places or who watch movies or listen to music without headphones. I have little patience for the litterers, the loud gum-chewers and the knuckle crackers. On a plane recently, I actually saw a man repeatedly blow his nose into a handkerchief then hang it over his armrest. Gross, you’re thinking. Me, too. I need company in my new fight to preserve the ways of old, when people actually flushed public toilets.

Today’s screed is related to a civil assault on language. Have you noticed it? It’s not that adults curse more. But I have noticed that even in fairly traditional circles, curse words are used as flourishes in conversations and in writing in ways that are new, disturbing and distracting. We’ve all witnessed someone apologize to a nun or a rabbi for letting a cuss word slip out in their presence. This may be a thing of the past. Some friends and students don’t hesitate to use curse words in explaining an idea or judging an opinion. And they’re not the passable words like “H-E-double hockey sticks” but the gezunte curse words that used to be totally taboo.

Maybe cursing is liberating as stress relief or the only reasonable reaction to anything from a stubbed toe to tragic news. Dropping a language bomb signals to others how strongly one feels about a situation. Maybe people find it fun or revel in vulgarity as a sign of independence from convention, the way a kid curses to impress peers. I side with George Washington, who wrote a whole book on civility. Forget the weird cherry tree story; our first president was a stickler about decent language: “The foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing is a vice so mean and low that every person of sense and character detests and despises it.”

If cursing is the fashion today then maybe it’s become the new normal. Sorry, George. Civility is subject to time and place. Yet I find myself unable to go there. Here’s my hypothesis: We curse more because our capacity to articulate ideas with accuracy and clarity is dying. Tweeting and texting have not only made terrible spellers of us all, they have also robbed us of sophisticated means of self-expression. This includes our verbal reactions to pain and tragedy, to surprise and shock. We have allowed four letters to replace full sentences, and in so doing, we’ve let go of the nuance that language offers us to express our deepest feelings.

If this sounds old-fashioned, it’s because it is. This approach to language dates all the way back to Genesis, when language was the building block of creation. There are many rich debates on why Hebrew is called “lashon ha-kodesh” — holy talk. Some of this discussion is covered masterfully in Lewis Glinert’s new book “The Story of Hebrew.” If you start off with an assumption that words should be holy, de-sanctifying them becomes all the more crass.

To understand just how deep this debate on the holiness of language extends, we need to spend a few minutes in the world of Jewish medieval scholarship. Maimonides, in his magnum opus, “The Guide to the Perplexed,” writes that one indication Hebrew is holy is that it contains no words for genitalia: “I have also a reason and cause for calling our language the holy language — do not think it is exaggeration or error on my part, it is perfectly correct — the Hebrew language has no special name for the organ of generation in females or in males, nor for the act of generation itself, nor for semen, nor for secretion. The Hebrew has no original expressions for these things, and only describes them in figurative language and by way of hints, as if to indicate thereby that these things should not be mentioned, and should therefore have no names; we ought to be silent about them…”

Nahmanides disagrees: “The reason why our rabbis refer to the language of the Torah as the holy language is because the words of the Torah, its prophets and all holy matters are all stated in that language. It is the language that the Holy One, blessed be He speaks to his prophets and his nation” (Exodus 30:13). Maimonides points to the words. Nahmanides points to the concepts. Either way, both point to holiness.

Holiness is really hard to achieve. But it’s a good benchmark for language. It makes human speech aspirational and not only conversational. It encourages us not to cheapen the gift that separates us from other animals but to use it wisely and well to express a fuller range of ideas and emotions. #georgewasright.

Erica Brown directs George Washington University’s Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. Her column appears the first week of the month.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at George Washington University and the director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. She is the author or eleven books; her forthcoming book is entitled Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet (Koren/OU, 2017). She previously served as scholar-in-residence at both The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston. Erica was a Jerusalem Fellow, is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation, an Avi Chai Fellow and is the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award for her work in education and the 2012 Bernie Reisman Award (Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, Brandeis University). You can subscribe to her blog, Weekly Jewish Wisdom at erica@ericabrown.com.
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