Tonight on my way to jiu jitsu my gi got caught on the screen door. I thought to myself, Self, you are going to be the first guy to tap out to a screen door. Then myself and I had a good laugh.
Catching my clothes on stuff generally makes me cranky, but tonight I was thinking about language instead. I’m not an expert on linguistics (I would be a white belt, to continue the martial arts analogy), but I love learning about language and how it works. And the reason I was thinking about language so much was because our son has now started babbling, at great length, making his opinion known as best he can.
Some people (meaning Chomsky, although I’m paraphrasing and greatly simplifying) have said language is innate, not something we are taught. Our language ability grows on its own, much like our arms and legs grow on their own.You don’t have to teach a kid how to grow longer arms. It just happens.
When you read my first two sentences, you were reading and interpreting sentences that have never existed before. Every day you do this, hundreds of thousands of time–we all do. You would think this means we’re all pretty smart, and when you look at it in one way, we all are.
On the other hand, for creatures who are so smart, so advanced, we can also be pretty stupid–or at least pretend to be. Don’t believe me? Post anything on the internet and wait for people to respond. Say you write,”The earth is round.” You’ll get people who will argue semantics (technically, it’s an oblate spheroid), as if a statement on semantics obliterates what you merely stated in a way meant for easy consumption. Others will argue the basic facts–it’s square–or go into realms of fancy–the planet is a product of the Illuminati and you’ll find out when they reveal themselves and move us to planet Zethron.
This is why I worry for Wolfe. He’s learning to talk, and judging by his progress, he’s going to be good at it. But what world will he find himself in? Will his linguistic abilities help him or hurt him in the world of the future? Will he ever have a deep, insightful conversation without it spiraling out of control into name-calling and bad propaganda techniques, with everybody involved trying to prove the other side wrong? Language is beautiful because it’s so dynamic and subject to interpretation–but sometimes that can be scary, too. It’s almost as if, at least in our country, we try to prove ourselves right (or the “other side” wrong) at the expense of having any kind of real dialogue that can move us to a better place.
I do have some hope for humanity. If you’ve been reading my posts, you know a friend from grad school has been diagnosed with breast cancer. The Writing Popular Fiction program at Seton Hill University is a unique one. You can earn an MFA by writing popular (meaning genre) fiction, mostly from home. For two glorious weeks each year you meet up with your colleagues in person, but the rest of it is all done the way most writing is done these days, alone in front of a computer screen, with others commenting from wherever they are. This seems like an odd way to form a community, but form a community it does–thereby proving that even the internet can be a good communication tool and not just a bad one.
After we found out about our friend, 76 people associated with the SHU community donated stories to an anthology to help her financially. Even more SHU’ers–hundreds more–agreed to help promote the book. These are people from all over the country (and even a couple of Canadians), and of course there are things we disagree about. Many things. In this case, though, rather than focusing on those differences, we focused on making the world a little bit better. We found a common cause, and we worked together to help another human being. The book (Hazard Yet Forward) made it to the top of the Kindle Anthologies chart, and in the first day alone we raised over $1,000 for Donna.
I hope Wolfe can also experience and use the power of language in a good way, an uplifting way, throughout his life. I hope he has passionate but respectful debates with people who think differently than he does. I hope sometimes he even changes his mind after talking, reading and thinking about a topic–and I hope sometimes he stands firmly for what he believes in, without belittling or demeaning those who disagree.
Oh, and does anybody know, now that he’s started talking, how we get him to stop?