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The philosopher Emil Cioran wrote, “One doesn't live in a
country, one lives in a language.” I believe that's true as far as
it goes; with me, though, it doesn't go as far as it should. I am
embarrassed to acknowledge that I have only one language. High
school Latin is at best an oppressive memory (and no one spoke it
anyway). A year of French in college empowered me only to pass a
required test and to make my wants known to any sympathetic French
person who understands English. During a brief tour of duty in
China long ago I fell in love with the language and worked hard and
joyously to learn it. But I wasn't there long enough to learn
enough, and I returned to the States equipped to do nothing more
than order a few dishes in Chinese restaurants, and then only if
the waiter knew Mandarin, which most did not. So if we live in a
language, I live solely, and somewhat uncomfortably, in this
That is no one's fault but my own. I admire, but have never
emulated, the idealistic energy of a retired neurologist friend who
last year began to study Farsi because “taking on a new language as
a first step to connecting with people we make no real effort to
understand is something I can actually do.”
Last Fourth of July the poet Gregory
Djanikian, born in Egypt of Armenian heritage, wrote a poem
describing “how we might contribute to that great melting pot that
is the English language….” Every Fourth of July calls up tired
references to the “melting pot,” but I had never before heard it
applied to the language. This breaks new ground. Or, for me, it
breaks old ground anew. The town I grew up in was ethnically
diverse enough to be called a melting pot. I suppose, if I thought
about it at all, I assumed that every place was. The diversity,
originating largely in accidents of European immigration and
American geography and industry, was not evenly distributed. We had
a heavy concentration of Poles, Greeks, Czechs, Ukrainians,
Russians, Croatians, Italians. No Swedes that I know of, or
Norwegians. Only a few Irish. Anglo Saxons stood out for their
scarcity and were the elite. It was a mill town, and most jobs were
factory jobs. The Anglo Saxons were for the most part plant
managers. A small Jewish community of about 70 families was
comprised chiefly of merchants.
The town's classes were not upper and lower. They were American
and foreign, which amounted very largely to the same thing. Anglo
Saxons were known locally as “Americans.” The hierarchy of
nationalities was expressed in a way peculiar to the region.
“Language,” in addition to its conventional meaning, was
synonymous with nationality. Language was not just what you spoke,
but what you were.
If you asked what language a person was, the answer might be
Polish, Czech or Italian. This did not mean that the person you
were inquiring about spoke any of those, although they might
have. It meant that's what their I.D. card would have said, had
there been one issued locally.
The melting pot was at best an imperfect vessel. Some
ingredients were slower to melt than others. I remember telling
someone that the son of our neighborhood convenience store owner
had just become engaged. “What language is she?” I was asked.
“American,” I said. “It'll never work,” he said. (As far as I know,
it did; at least for awhile.) The usage seemed perfectly normal to
me. Even after I discovered that the rest of the world thought
language and nationality had different meanings, I
viewed our use of the terms affectionately as just another of the
linguistic peculiarities of a region that went to “pitniks” in the
summer, lived in houses where Santa Claus came down a “chimley” and
where young adults who didn't have jobs lived with their
It has occurred to me lately that our local aberrations were
prophetic, or at least no laughing matter. Language was not the
main thing that separated us then, but it is likely to be now.
Designers, being generalists to begin with, specialize awkwardly,
referring constantly to the difficulty of not being understood by
people who speak the language of business, the language of
academia, the language of fine art. And even within the design
community it isn't always easy for architects to converse with
interaction designers, or for graphic consultants to communicate
with interior designers.
Certain aspects of design have always required some translation
when described to laymen. But technology today advances and changes
at such a rapid pace that conventional sources of information
cannot keep up with new terms called into play by new phenomena.
This of course is not limited to the design professions. No one
over age 60 finds it easy to communicate with digital natives
without first learning some foreign expressions. In June the
standards editor at the New York Times issued a memo asking
writers to avoid using the word “tweet,” explaining, “we favor
established usage and ordinary words over the latest jargon or
buzzwords.” That shocked David Pogue, the paper's technical
columnist, into devoting
his July 8 column to the meaning and functions of Facebook,
Twitter, LinkedIn and the like. At the height of 1960s angst it was
seriously suggested that we were creating a world where everybody
would need a personal therapist. Perhaps we're creating one in
which everyone needs an interpreter.
Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design
and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of
I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt
and is the recipient of the
2011 AIGA Medal.
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