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Aeric Estep: 'We must use all the complexity, nuance, beauty and tactfulness of language in order to create understanding.'

COURTESY - Aeric EstepA recent, friendly Twitter spat had me considering the nature and use of grammar and language. The quarrel revolved around the distinction between "good" and "well". The former as an adjective as in, "I am good" and the latter as an adverb as in, "I am doing well."

I argued that they should not be used interchangeably while my sparring partner argued otherwise. His argument rested in the evolution of language and how people hear "well" and "good" as synonyms. I asserted the preservation is necessary otherwise we are discarding helpful tools.

We must conserve our language to maintain its effectiveness in communication for proficient use of language is the instrument which can bring reconciliation in the midst of polarization. The evolution of language, though sometimes allowing for complexity, often results in the simplification of language. This shrinking will result in lack of precision, beauty, and rhetoric; the very instruments we need to remedy polarization with our neighbors. We must preserve our language to maintain its ability to restore.

The tragedies, dangers, divisions, and tensions in the last 18 months revealed our need for nuance and precision in our language and dialogue. Those who are exacerbating our polarization engage in the simplification of categories and language to the distortion of accuracy and clarity.

I can think of numerous words that bear too much meaning without being precise: great, high-spread, systemic, election, equality. Each of these may elicit a response in you, but these words alone are not enough to communicate the true nature of the maladies to which they point. We need more words, not less.

Additionally, the consolidation of language steals the words necessary to breath beauty into art: stories, poetry, and song. Sure, we can say simply, "the sun rose," but the image that phrase paints is but a husk compared to the picture ignited in the mind when you read, "When newborn Dawn appeared with rosy fingers." (Thank you, Homer.) Or ponder the variations Oregonians are able to communicate when they refer to their multifaceted understanding of rain: drizzle, sprinkle, deluge, liquid sunshine.

To work beyond our division we need to tell stories that point to something better and those stories need to be filled with beauty. We need more than accurate words. We need beautiful words.

Finally, the loss of distinction, vocabulary and the complex structure of thought brings us to a place where we are less able to engage the necessary arguments that will guide us to understanding and resolution.

The hyper-polarized would have us lazily, yet viciously, wield power to the detriment of our neighbors. Instead we must demand the best arguments engaged from every side. We must use all the complexity, nuance, beauty and tactfulness of language in order to create understanding.

A leader unwilling to labor with language for the sake of unity is unfit for the role. We know no shortcuts to effective communication. Our inability to articulate our own position, let alone that of those who oppose us, is too big a loss.

Does language evolve? Undoubtedly, but let us curb our proclivity to simplify lest we dispose of the tools that allow us to communicate toward a place of understanding with our neighbor. With a conserved language, we can unleash its power to give precision, breadth, beauty and strength to ideas.

Aeric Estep co-hosts the City on a Hill Podcast. You can also find him on Twitter @aericestep. He lives in West Linn.


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