Language and the Media Narrative



“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” said Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Most people prefer the use of known and simple words, to cover a lot of ground. Yet when we learn more words, we expand not just our verbal tool set, but also our mind and thinking. Yes, too many words can complicate things, but too few can get you stuck.

Too few words limit your ability to tell a story. Fewer stories and you lose an important narrative. In history as in business culture, language matters.


How language has changed

In 2016, Umberto Galimberti, a contemporary philosopher, author, sociologist, journalist, and professor spoke at the Verona Festival of Beauty. Among the many provocations in his 1.5 hour conversation was an observation on how language has changed over the centuries. His talk# was titled, “Beauty, the Secret Law of Life.”

Within the context of beauty, Galimberti explores the evolution of language, saying (translation mine):

Language becomes poorer progressively. With technology it becomes poorest, almost zero.

Linguist Tullio de Mauro# did some research and found that the average person had a vocabulary of 1,500 words in 1976. Twenty years later, in 1996, that vocabulary dropped down to 640 words.

In 2016, the average person has 200 words, says Galimberti.

You cannot think beyond the words you know. You can think within the words you know.

He quotes Heidegger#, “You cannot think where there’s no word.” German has the richest and most precise vocabulary of the modern world, he adds. But if we want to go to the source, we should look at ancient Greek, which had a vocabulary of 80,000 words (Latin was half that amount).

The Greeks invented philosophy, architecture, mathematics because they had the words. Persona in Greek means animal that has the word. “The beauty of the word is especially fitting in the efficacy of reasoning. Because reasoning needs appropriate words,” says Galimberti.

Words are important to conceptual thinking. English lacks a fundamental aspect of Western thought, which is abstraction. You cannot think in theory, this is why everything is concrete in English-speaking cultures.

For example, in German “Man sagt”

is “si dice” in Italian and “on dit” in French.

But English has only “you,” otherwise you have no idea who you’re talking about. Anybody, somebody, you gotta have a body in there. And not necessarily someone you know about something you can relate to or with which you have a connection. Nor somebody responsible who's accountable.

English is thus conceptually-deprived. Italian is conceptually poor. There's some hope there. Adjectives and adverbs can make words adequate to the situation. Yet throughout history, there have been geniuses like Dante Aligheri that figured out how to bend the words to the ambition, inventing a more expansive language.


Newspeak the poorest of all

The body count is high in newspeak. Before the telegraph, information was part of a process of understanding and solving particular problems. Mostly, of local interest. Once the telegraph removed proximity or space as a constraint, information became free of context.

From there, it became a commodity, a thing you can buy and sell, detached from the people and the meaning. Rather than using the story quality and usefulness of the news to connect, news shifted to speed. Visuals doing more of the heavy lifting for media.

Instancy started replacing coherence. Broadcasting focuses on speed and immediacy. Which means simpler and fewer words, repeated often, as refrain. Fewer words diminish the range of thought. Until you become enclosed in them. George Orwell, 1984, page 48:

“Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten…

Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there's no reason or excuse for committing thought crime. It's merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won't be any need even for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.”

This is what happens when public relations by institutions or organizations turns into propaganda.

Of course, as Neil Postman noted, the spirit of culture degrades when the inverse happens as well. That is when newscasts go the Huxleyan way and turn into a burlesque. Here, the point is to distract with trivia and public conversation becomes a form of baby talk.

When the public or community becomes audience.


Words are the scaffolding to concepts

Shift from 'audience' to 'community' and you have a different conversation. I've never liked the word 'resource,' either. Because the word—whether you talk about natural things or people—is about the user. It doesn't describe what is possible.

If you say you 'protect' nature or people, that still signals superiority. That you have the power over them. The word says much about who says it. But there are more insidious words hiding in plain sight. They focus you on trying to solve the very problem they create. They show up as dichotomies. They form ineffective questions.

Words are important to strategists, because we start with ideas. To open people's thinking and challenge they way they work we tend to be well-read, highly creative, and very articulate. Being thoughtful is a compliment in more than one way.

From thinking, and communicating comes doing. We think within the words we know. Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer wrote in a New York Times essay# (2013):

“The problem with accepting — with preferring — diminished substitutes is that over time, we, too, become diminished substitutes. People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little.”

I'd add than when we get used to saying little, we become used to thinking little. Part of it is driven by the shifting forces in digital culture. Part of it by this idea of convenience and shortness. Make no mistake, without properly digesting the meaning of words, we can hardly expect fully-formed thoughts.


Rebalancing the media narrative

Jay Rosen says, “Local news is where people first establish a relationship with journalism and the good it can do: It helps you get your bearings in a tangible world. If that experience goes missing, the introduction is likely to come through a distant abstraction, The Media— now a hate object.”

Local is tangible because it has proximity. But you don't need to be too local to have context. Backgrounders do that. They widen the lens to what happened historically. If you're lucky, they also include likely scenarios of what could happen next.

A combination of local and historical is the reason why in person stories are still most valuable. Now it's podcasters, amateur or not, who are replacing radio staff and journalists missing because of corporate rationalizations and budget cuts. Journalist Mario Calabresi is publishing a series on voices from the (latest) war.

Calabresi worked at national news organizations, becoming director at both Repubblica and La Stampa. He says:

I'm convinced that the story of the facts of the world, of the reasons that caused them and their consequences, is more alive than ever, but that the forms of this story need to be updated. If the paper declines it does not mean that journalism should decline with it. I'm fascinated by every new form of storytelling, from podcasts to documentaries, from TV series to newsletters to live events.

We need to put the stories back to form a narrative that is more representative of reality. The telling of history is the telling of the stories of everyone. And so should be the telling of what's happening, right now. You just need more curiosity.

Curiosity if humanity's search engine.

You optimize your potential when you continue exploring.

And going beyond page one.

Media is in serious need of rebalancing. That includes better business models. Or we get to the point where family is the only media left.


[Image by Mahesh Patel from Pixabay]

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