Babel Revisited

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 one.

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 “famblies.”

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.

About the Author:

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.