Why Words Matter

Why Words Matter

At first glance, the issue shouts irrelevancy: the rewriting (and production) of Shakespeare’s plays into trendy English. But just under the surface, there lurks a profound lesson about the art of communication that impacts us all. In an op-ed in today’s New York Times (“Shakespeare in Modern English?”) James Shapiro bemoans the decision by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to hire a battery of writers to rewrite the Bard into 21st century-friendly parlance. Forget, for the moment, the arguments by the literary purists, and consider the following analogies.

What difference would it make, as an example, for the Supreme Court to “rewrite” the Bill of Rights into modern understanding, a kind of free-range approach, rather than, as some prefer, reading it in a way that is corralled by the “original understanding” of the Founders? Those of us in the constitutional law community know that some justices have done exactly that. The only dispute is whether this trend – interpreting a document that was drafted 228 years ago as if it was written yesterday – is a good or bad thing. Powerful legal rights, and political, religious, and cultural consequences depend on that outcome. Words matter, and the more important the outcome at stake, the more words can matter greatly.

Which is why the degradation of language in social media doesn’t bother me, with only one exception In a finding released on July 16, 2013, the Pew Foundation reported that 78% of teachers found expressive and creative benefit to students who use the “new media.” At the same time, most were cautious about the increase in sloppy research and grammar that has resulted. The conclusion: a mixed bag. But the hyper-modern devolution of language and the rise of slang fueled by technology, e.g. LOL (laughing out loud), LMIRL (let’s meet in real life) usually do not create outcomes that are either fundamental or critical. Except in one respect.

There is a risk that we could morph into a world where words never matter much, and that would be a seismic problem. If you are a person who believes that the Bible is a divinely inspired document, then accurate translations are critical, because accuracy impacts an outcome of cosmic proportions: the mankind/God relationship. Interpretation of words in the Constitution or in legislative statutes creates heavy outcomes in our personal and political lives. Even the literature we studied in school but haven’t dusted off for years can impact commons understandings of life, and values. This week back in 1929 marks the publication of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, a famously complex novel that won him the Nobel Prize in Literature. Accepting the award, he noted that the power of writing lies in its transmission of “old universal truths.” But if specific words don’t matter, then neither would “universal truth” matter. Any “truth” would do.

By the way, the title of Faulkner’s novel? It was taken from a line from Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, which aptly describes what we are left with if modern language radicals take over: “ … a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.”

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