In our technological Information Age, we spend our time “speaking” primarily by text, email, eBooks, or online forums. Gone seem the days of deep, personal conversations; cursive, handwritten letters; and real-paper, printed books. We defend our choices with their efficient outcomes, but few of us stop to consider what we might be losing in the process of trying to race ahead. What, we should be asking ourselves, is the purpose of words? Is it just to impart information, or is there something more?
Words are the basis of language, which, at its heart, is the basis of communication of ideas and thoughts. They are how we share emotions and experiences, not just day-to-day pieces of factual information. However, consider how our conversations often go, both privately and publically. Most of us have had occasion to speak with someone, often a teenager or young adult, who frequently breaks off from the conversation to consult their smartphone or another device. Since the attention then shifts from us to the device, the conversation stops abruptly, and an interrupted conversation is like interrupted sleep – it loses its continuity. If the conversation is interrupted multiple times, it is highly likely that continuity cannot be restored. Communication ceases.
According to Samuel Hazo of Duquesne University, genuine conversations are rooted in listening, responding, and creating a joint narrative, and they are unfortunately becoming the exception rather than the rule. We use our communication skills most often to engage in nothing more than an exchange of information. However, information is the lowest level of knowledge, and it’s where conversation should start, not where it should end.
We speak or write or read to express or affirm accurately and faithfully what we think and feel. Some consider literature to be communication’s most perfect form — the clear expression of felt thought; others opt for poetry, usually of the classical variety (think Shelley or Yates or Frost). The person who reads it or listens to it being read, feels it expressed in this way; it can permanently affect them, and it can alter their worldview. It is a shared bond forged between writer and reader, with both parties paying attention to how and why the words are used in a particular way.
In a society where so much emphasis is placed on speed, including reading and communication, many never have the opportunity to enjoy or understand such a bond. It takes more time and attention to read and absorb a poem or a great book than it does to read the headline news. But for those who take or make the time to immerse themselves in what they are reading, the beauty of our language, and the multiple layers of meaning a sentence can convey, become readily apparent.
What is the fate of the written word in our time? For one thing, cursive writing is no longer being taught – educators claim we don’t need it in today’s society. When communicating factual data, or a set of directions, this is probably true. But for delving into the richness of what language has to offer, it is needed more now than at any other time in our history. Sure, you can read the Declaration of Independence in a textbook or on a web page, but when you see the original document, handwritten and signed by all the Founding Fathers, there is a connection forged that cannot be duplicated in any other way.
We are fracturing into ever smaller groups, with ever-limited communication; finding the personal in our daily experiences shows us what it means to be human. Conversation provides that experience, but only if we are not distracted or diverted by irrelevance. Reading something written by hand or something that was carefully crafted not only demonstrates the time invested by the writer, but it also allows us, the reader, to contemplate what the writer was thinking when he wrote it, regardless of the subject.
Words are who we are and what we have yet to become. We need to encourage the teaching and advancement of language at every opportunity to live up to the potential words offer for emotional connection and critical thinking. These traits, not just the transfer of information, are what make people – and societies – great.
Hazo, Samuel. (November 27, 2016). “The Dying Life of Words.” Retrieved from http://www.post-gazette.com/opinion/Op-Ed/2016/11/27/The-dying-life-of-words/stories/201611270014