Language: A Poorly Thought Out Foray Into Academia

This is a paper I handed in for an English class. I think it’s cool, but I apologize if you find it dry and pretentious.

Dictionaries have largely become the tools of writers and editors. Those that are tasked with getting the words and punctuation ‘right’ produce content that millions of people on cellphones, laptop computers, and tablets read. Bored in a social situation? Read something on your phone. Standing in line? Read something on your phone. Procrastinating studying for a test? Phone. But we’re not reading Chaucer or Faulkner, we’re reading internet comments, Facebook posts, and blogs, most of which are not making us any smarter. The internet proliferates information like never before, but it’s not all honest—like the goals of newspaper journalism—or even well-written like its literary ancestors.  No one line-edits or fact-checks internet comments, and you can never be really sure if the information you got on the web is correct.

I personally love the dictionary, highlighting every new word I discover in the OED, but I’m fairly certain that most of my peers—even those who are English majors—don’t share my fondness.  Has it always been this way? Has the dictionary always just been a tool for book nerds?

Or, was there a time when the dictionary was used by the general public, the common people, to ease communication with others? I’ve heard many people mistakenly make the argument that our ‘ancestors’ read more than we do. It’s easy for us to imagine an 18th Century common person relaxing in their drawing room clutching a Defoe in their hands. There was no internet or television to be a distraction. The concept is sexy to us book nerds: that reading was a leisure time for many people, and that books were a part of the pop culture—gasp! Delete this misconception from your brain now.  Information is all around us, it’s impossible to get away from it. We have no choice. Everyone is expected to have a cellphone and access to the internet, absent cutting everyone out of your life technology is fundamental to communication. But we can’t give up. We have an obligation, as smart people, to understand technology so that evil people can’t take advantage of it.

Samuel Johnson

The dictionary of a language can tell you a lot about its culture. I would argue that a dictionary is essential to studying a language even if that dictionary is decoded after the destruction of said civilization. You can learn about a society’s war, agrarian, and political practices by reading the dictionary. Furthermore, the dictionary has to be regularly updated to represent a language that is in flux. Languages are organic, words change based on the dominant culture, and some words still exist but have different definitions than they used to, and sometimes new words are created altogether. For example, a dictionary written in the 18th century will be very different than a dictionary written in 2016 even if they define the same language.

Samuel Johnson’s “A Dictionary of the English Language,” 1755, was the pre-eminent English dictionary before the first “Oxford English Dictionary” was published over 150 years later. Johnson writes in the introduction,

“Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries; whom mankind have considered not as the pupil but the slave of science, the pioneer of literature, doomed only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths through which learning and genius press forward to conquest and glory”  (Johnson, 2704).

Johnson clearly doesn’t approach the job of lexicographer—someone who writes dictionaries—very lightly. In fact, he’s making the argument that it is more of an obligation, to the language, than a privilege to be the one compiling the dictionary.  A lexicographer doesn’t get praised for doing good work, but only criticized when things go awry. However, Johnson’s language, more specifically the metaphor where he claims to be the “pioneer of literature,” begs the question of whether there is an endpoint to language and if the dictionary can ever be ‘complete.’ In other words, the path that Johnson is clearing has to lead somewhere.

Language’s fluidity is determined largely by commerce, Johnson argues in the introduction. The opening of new trade routes and British imperial colonialism have created a marketplace for language, which Johnson argues has resulted in the deterioration of English. What would Johnson think about all of the emoji’s and half language we communicate with today?

Under Johnson’s interpretation the dictionary is as much a tool as it is a record of something that’s organic.

“To interpret a language by itself is very difficult; many words cannot be explained by synonyms because the idea signified by them has not more than one appellation; nor by paraphrase, because simple ideas cannot be described.” (Johnson, 2705)

How many of the words in “A Dictionary of the English Language” existed before the dictionary, and how many are constructions by Johnson? There isn’t any way to tell absent time travel. As a document, we can come to understand Johnson’s dictionary as a corpus—or archive—of the rules of the English language. In Johnson’s earlier research he found English to be “copious without order, and energetic without rules” (Johnson, 2705).

The lexicographer has the power to create the rules of the language. The written language has power because it can create obligations and contracts between people and organizations. One example of this would be Johnson’s serialized twice-weekly periodical called “The Rambler,” which created a community of people with shared interests who also were reading the same material. These people might have had similarities if they weren’t reading the same thing, but at least some part of their beliefs were influenced by the publication even if only by a small amount. Another example might be the U.S. Constitution, which regulates rules and procedures for the public by creating a record of the laws for—and freedoms of—the people.

While one could make a compelling argument that a single person should not have the authority to create the rules of a language, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Johnson’s rules have stopped the English language from completely deteriorating by creating a standard reference. The rules of language enable communication, rather than stifle it, because they create an archive. The dictionary thus normalizes the English language.

“Wherever I turned my view [when creating the dictionary], there was perplexity to be disentangled and confusion to be regulated” (Johnson, 2704).

It’s important for the purposes of my argument to distinguish between spoken and written language as two different means to an end of communication. That’s not to say that written and spoken communication have the same goals. Spoken communication is more efficient, it takes less time, but there is no record of it after the fact. People are frequently garrulous and narcissistic, and if you kept a record of spoken communication you would realize how word inefficient speaking is. Furthermore, much of spoken communication is body language and non-verbal cues, which writing can’t rely on. Written language, by itself, is a record of human communication and can obligate people to each other. More examples include, marriage licenses, birth certificates, business to business contracts, invoices, tax documents, tenant agreements and land deeds. The list goes on and on.

The purpose of the lexicographer is even more basic, but more essential, than compiling the documents that make up the archive of the English language. Johnson’s job is to create a standardized language so there is a uniform understanding for commerce and the law. Uniformity, or at least the façade of it, is necessary to settle disputes between business parties and to create laws that treat everyone equally and protect the people. If there weren’t agreed upon definitions of words, than all legal disputes would rely exclusively on hearsay evidence.

Therefore, Johnson finds himself in an interesting position because he is an arbiter of the truth. He has the power to define words, which is also the power to interpret laws and contracts. His power is not ultimate, there is already a standard for what many of the words in the English language meant, which means that he couldn’t just changes definitions. Nevertheless, his job is to record these meanings into an archive that can be used as a reference point.

“ Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design will require that it should fix our language and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition.” (Johnson, 2707)

Johnson’s solution to the problem of language’s fluidity is through the academy. He argues that academics should, “guard the avenues of their language” (Johnson, 2707). But what about problems in the academy, like its inaccessibility to many?

While there were many legitimate questions about economic inequality and race in the 18th century, there may be even more concerns in the present day. Not everyone has their hands on the levers of power. Many of the variables that define power are not necessarily based on skill or work ethic, but also based on race and socioeconomic status. If the language becomes detached from those who don’t have political power there is nothing to stop business and the government from taking advantage of them. If the English language required a college education to understand, then wouldn’t the government be able to create laws that aren’t representative of the people? Couldn’t they manipulate votes and rig elections so that the same people never left power? Could they invade countries under false pretenses by spreading inaccurate information to the media? Did Saddam have weapons of mass destruction? Words can have real power, especially when they are used to dominate, instead of to help, others.

II. Jacques Derrida 
Derrida’s “Archive Fever” is in many ways the antithesis to Johnson’s dictionary. While “A Dictionary of the English Language” tries to create a compiled center of meaning for English, Derrida’s deconstruction method is concerned with “De-centring our literary universe” (Beginning Theory, 66). He argues that power situates itself in language. For example, during the renaissance and enlightenment ideas like “rationality” and “humanism” were used by the elites to  demonstrate white male superiority over “savage”—and thus irrational—populations, and to use industry, or creating more wealth for the already wealthy, to destroy the environment with reckless abandon (Beginning Theory, 67).

Every so often a person or way of thinking comes along that radically changes everything that came before it. Think Copernicus. Or think of string theory, the Cold War, the Holocaust, Einstein, or even Steve Jobs. These events and people alter history that came before them, and are thus inextricably tied to the past. Why do you think Copernicus was condemned by the Catholic Church? It was because they were threatened by him. He changed “man’s” interpretation of the bible. Modernism is also notable in this argument because it challenged the idea that there must be harmony in music, linear plot in literature, and a definition of art (Beginning Theory, 67). These moments open up space for even more new ideas.

Derrida goes so far as to argue that no absolute truth exists, only individual interpretations of it. You should see now that this interpretation of the truth is profoundly different than Johnson’s opinions on the English language. More specifically, Derrida’s opinion of absolute truth is an argument against what Johnson says about trade, that it erodes language and that it can be policed by the academy.

“Let us not begin at the beginning, nor even the archive. But rather at the word ‘archive’—and with the archive of so familiar a word” (Derrida, 1).

Derrida’s method of deconstruction relies on uncovering the hidden meanings in words and tracing their etymology. Unlike Johnson’s method of compiling a breadth of the greatest authors of the English language, Derrida’s method relies on the depth of the words that are already recorded in the archive of  language. In practice, the Derrida model begins by deconstructing the word archive.

“Arkhē, we recall, names at once the commencement and the commandment. This name apparently coordinates two principles in one: the principle according to nature or history, there where things commence—physical, historical, or ontological principle—but also the principle according to the law, there where men and gods command, there where authority, social order [is] exercised” (Derrida, 1).

Arkhē is the Latin for archive. Two things that influence the record of history are natural phenomena—the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs—and decisions, sometimes a series of decisions, made by people— like World War II being largely a byproduct of many European people being in power and competing for space. Walter Benjamin the German Jewish philosopher said “History is written by the victors”. Genocides, for example, can destroy the entire record of a culture. Furthermore, colonialism can slowly destroy a local culture by spreading ideas and even propaganda. One example would be how the dissemination of the Bible, and White Christianity, by Western Europeans to African and Asian people destroyed many tribal religions in the process. A later example would be how white landowners kept black people in the south oppressed by getting them to sign share-cropping agreements that left whole generations of families impoverished (Alexander, 23). A more recent example would be how ExxonMobil knew about global warming in 1981, but disseminated evidence to the contrary through lawyers and scientists (The Guardian).

Language cannot be controlled by one person. However, Johnson is simultaneously the commander of literary power by choosing what goes in the dictionary, but also the slave to his own power because the process is a burden. Very few people were as capable as Samuel Johnson of undertaking the dictionary. Some, but certainly not all power is inherited. Johnson inherited the power of being a white man in England, but also did not come from a rich family, and struggled through much of his life. Johnson worked incredibly hard for his clout. He wasn’t a random person who decided he was the guardian of the language. Johnson also had a wide readership, and the people may have wanted him to be the one who built the dictionary, even if he wasn’t elected. Power by itself isn’t bad, it all depends on what you do with it. I think that Johnson thought he was doing good for the language, and he may be right.

If “A Dictionary of the English Language” didn’t exist then we would know less about the time period. More frightening, we would be unable to learn from the people who came before us if we didn’t have a historical record of their culture and language. Furthermore, a writer as good as Dante, William Shakespeare, James Joyce, or David Foster Wallace only comes along every once in a while. We would not be able appreciate their words, and the words of many other authors, if there was not an archive of their works. On the other hand, if we only had the texts it would be impossible to interpret and understand them without a dictionary.

“Every archive, we will draw some inferences from this, is at once institutive and conservative. Revolutionary and traditional. An eco-nomic archive this double sense: it keeps, it puts in reserve, it saves, but in an unnatural fashion, that is to say in making the law (nomos) or in making people respect the law” (Derrida, 7).

Samuel Johnson was able to write literary laws into the language, but because the

language can’t be controlled by one singular person he’s merely starting the conversation, rather than controlling it. Even the most invasive propaganda projects can’t control what people think and the internal dialogue in theor heads—which is still language even though it’s not spoken. It’s also easy to view Johnson’s dictionary as traditional because we can only comprehend it in a historical context; we can’t possibly realize how revolutionary it was at the time because we weren’t there. Johnson’s dictionary, in other words, is a living document.


Wouldn’t it be easier to view Johnson’s dictionary as a starting point, rather than a complete method to understand the English language? He makes it harder to like him when he says,

“Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design will require that it should fix
our language and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been
suffered to make in it without opposition” (Johnson, 2707).

Johnson truly believes that language is ‘fixable’, but it clearly begs the question: Can language ever be complete? Instead I suggest that we should look at language like a process, and try to refrain from judgment. I’m not saying that in 2016 we all have to read “Emoji Dick” a re-telling of Herman Melville’s masterpiece using only emoji icons, but there is no foreseeable way to force people not to read it. Banning the book would only make it more popular. Instead of trying to force people into thinking differently, we can only glean from what they like and don’t like, and maybe show them a better alternative.

If thoughts can truly change the world, as Derrida argues, than it would be narcistically dogmatic to discount technologies and new ideas just because they are new. At the same time, it can be very hard to understand why young people enjoy the things that are popular and trendy without being one. People smarter than myself have said that the only path to knowledge is accepting that you really know nothing at all. It helps us keep an open mind. Close-mindedness is the opposite of progress because it allows an older person with more “experience” to determine what is right and wrong. It uses the façade wisdom—knowing what works and what doesn’t—to feed one’s own ego and self-importance. Johnson’s close-mindedness is inevitably emblematic of the times. If you believe that true progress does exist, than we know more now than we used to. But if that knowledge only proves that things are more abstract, and there is no way to classify one thing as superior to another, than what do we do? These thought-holes can get confusing and make one’s brain hurt as theorizing without action is meaningless. Maybe it’s all meaningless. My suggestion would be that you go and love people rather than spending too much time thinking about them, or to quote Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

By | 2018-05-22T10:30:58+00:00 January 1st, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

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