In an earlier post I talked a little about how an understanding of English grammar can take you a long way to being a better communicator and a better learner. In this post I want to take a quick look at some ideas that push the way we use language, or perhaps language uses us, to shape the world around us in very specific ways.

A little while ago I was re-reading Marshal McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of ManIs the phonetic alphabet really that powerful? 1 and came across his thoughts on the influence of the building ‘blocks’ of English – the phonetic alphabet. I thought I’d throw some of these in here even if you may feel they take the case for the power of the alphabet a bit too far!

Our alphabet, according to McLuhan, where ‘semantically meaningless letters are used to correspond to semantically meaningless sounds‘ (unlike, for example, Chinese ideograms) is the ‘secret of Western power over man and nature alike‘.

McLuhan’s argument is that the phonetic alphabet breaks up into a linear and progressive mode experience that is, of its nature, not at all linear or progressive and that this is why:

‘ Western industrial programs have quite involuntarily been so militant,
and our military programs been so industrial. Both are shaped by the alphabet
in their technique of transformation and control by making all situations
uniform and continuous.’

His argument is that our language is at the very heart of how and why we do things the way we do. It constantly shapes and dictates our actions and perceptions. It’s a bit of a knock against the argument that we have much of a free will , that we really have much control over the way that we perceive and develop the world outside of ourselves.

But is he right? There is a powerful collection of English poetry and literature that argues that despite being saddled with a phonetic alphabet that ties us to the linear and progressive we are able to use language to convey the timeless, the non-linear, and the deeply experiential and to express that more holistic universe that, according to McLuhan, our language stops us from fully perceiving.

McLuhan’s world where we have carefully constructed our complex reality around ‘semantically meaningless letters … used to correspond to semantically meaningless sounds‘ is a place where language has to find a way to describe and organize reality as we currently know it – rich in species, objects and ideas and for which we have developed an extensive vocabulary to describe it along with other linguistic tools such as metaphor and allusion to reach into those areas that the linear and progressive can’t get into.

Later in the week I want to have a look at another book, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, where language, in the face of a post-apocalyptic world devoid of this rich diversity and variety, is stripped back to its bones and where most of the vocabulary that we use with such confidence is rendered meaningless or impotent. In many ways, this second book, redeems, language, our language, if only by showing what we would lose should it no longer be able or required to describe the complex fragile, world that we live in – linear and progressive or not!

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