Wall clock at St. Cloud Public Library surrounded by words that form a bird, 2019.
history pragmatic historian

History Is Embedded in Language

Book: The Word Exchange, a novel by Alena Graedon, copyright 2014.
Book: The Word Exchange, a novel by Alena Graedon, copyright 2014.

I just finished reading a novel by Alena Graedon called “The Word Exchange.” The basic plot is that technology, both in the form of handheld devices called “Memes” and a wearable called “Nautilus,” causes what is called a word flu, wherein people start substituting regular words with nonsense words. For some, the flu, which also causes other physical symptoms, is deadly, or it may cause a permanent “silencing” of individuals.

Of course, corporate greed and corruption are at the root of the word flu. Should we be surprised anymore that so many of society’s ills can be traced to these traits? Art imitates life, indeed.

The company behind the word flu wants to gain complete control of the world’s languages, buying up all existing dictionaries and creating new words out of thin air and assigning them random meanings. It wants people to become dependent upon its Memes and Nautilus devices for language interpretation, which, if taken to its logical conclusion, means control of all thought and culture.

The parallels to our smartphones are obvious. How often do we turn to our phones to look up some fact that in the past we would have been dependent upon our memories to hold? How often do we use our phones to look up word definitions rather than turn to a printed dictionary?

As a book lover and a writer who did not have a computer until adulthood or a smartphone until relatively recently, I have a decided preference for printed books. I’ve tried reading digital versions of books and though I can appreciate the convenience, I find it a pain. While I enjoy using a computer for writing, when my words get stuck, I turn to a notebook and pen to get going again. Forget writing on a phone. Blech. I do more misspelling there than actual writing, which is why I sometimes don’t respond to social media posts until I can get to a computer keyboard.

Given all of this, I appreciate the treatment for word flu as presented by the author. Along with quarantine (because word flu can be caught merely by hearing someone with word flu speak) and a course of anti-virals, “language fasts” are recommended (so you can’t speak and you have to hang out in a quiet room for several days), as is avoiding meaningless content, speaking with uninfected people (in multiple languages, if possible), and reading books and writing. The treatment, other than the anti-virals, sounds like heaven to me.

Because the main character’s father is a writer of dictionaries, the tie between history and language is apparent, particularly by the end of the book, when the following sentence appears: “But the secretary of education recently unveiled an initiative for curriculums to place more emphasis on history and language.” (pg. 361)

Words and languages are a vessel for history. Each word has arisen out of a culture’s development and use of it. Each word has a history that continues to evolve. History then uses words to promulgate itself.

Because words, languages, and history are so tightly intertwined, when one culture wants to subdue or destroy another, it works hard to erase its language and history. One example of this was the United States government’s use of boarding schools for Native children, forcing children to live away from their parents so they wouldn’t learn their native language or cultural traditions. Denise Lajimodiere recently published a book called “Stringing Rosaries” about the abuse Ojibwe children suffered in boarding schools in the effort to erase their language and culture.

According to The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues:

“Conservative estimates suggest that more than half of the world’s languages will become extinct by 2100. Other calculations predict that up to 95 per cent of the world’s languages may become extinct or seriously endangered by the end of this century. The majority of the languages that are under threat are indigenous languages. It is estimated that one indigenous language dies every two weeks.”

That’s a LOT of history in danger of disappearing. As my historian friend David Grabitske says, there are terms in specific languages that simply can’t be translated properly to another language. Part of the reason for that is the history that is embedded in the language through a community’s or society’s use of it over time.

There are efforts to revive endangered Native languages. Bemidji State University offers an Ojibwe language program, and the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Dakotah Language Institute in South Dakota is devoted to preserving the Dakotah language. The Minnesota Historical Society also has Beginning Dakota lessons on its website.

Even with these efforts, the United Nations’ estimate on the expected worldwide loss of languages is a scary prospect, not only for language but for history.

How fictional is the word flu anyway?