Archives For Communication

csl bilingualHow many extremely intelligent and well educated people do you know . . . who can actually communicate with those of us possessing normal human intelligence?

That talent is a rarity.

And it is precisely what makes C.S. Lewis such an unusual man. He was brilliant. Yet he could communicate with the common person—even the child—just as easily as he conversed with his fellow university dons.

Lewis, of course, could comprehend a number of languages, so he was more than merely “bilingual.” But that is not exactly the sense in which I am using the word today. I mean it in the sense of my opening paragraphs. It is the ability to communicate (even with the same “language”) to distinctly different groups who would normally not be able to readily understand one another.

In an interview that appeared in Christianity Today, Detroit pastor Christopher Brooks was asked about the challenges of urban ministry.

How have you included both righteousness and justice in your setting?

I think about C.S. Lewis, who had the challenge of building the bridge between the culture of Oxford and Cambridge and the culture of the church. These cultures were worlds apart by his time, but he was bilingual, in a sense: able to speak the language of Oxford to the church and the language of the church to the intellectuals and naturalists.

One of the titles for ancient Roman priests that was adopted by their Christian successors is “pontifex.” It means “bridge-maker.” The Pontifex Maximus was, of course, referred to the greatest of these offices.

In light of Brooks’ words about Lewis as building bridges between elite academia and Christianity, I have added that dimension to my view of him. C.S. Lewis, Pontifex Maximus. (I doubt it would make him happy, so I’ll keep it under wraps . . . and probably never mention it again.) But I am genuinely happy about his skill in building these bridges of understanding.

Before signing off, a special treat. If you call someone who speaks two languages “bilingual,” and someone who speaks three “trilingual,” what do you call someone who only speaks one language? Why, an American, of course.

That joke would not be as funny if it were not so sadly true. While the rest of the world almost assumes that people know at least two languages, most Americans stumble their way through the study of a second language for two or three years and never develop a comfort level with it. But that’s a story for another day.

platypusI have a twitter account I’ve never used. I had attended a ministry conference where the featured speaker encouraged all of the pastors to harness the power of this cutting edge technology.

I dutifully returned home, established an account, and realized there were very few things I wanted to say in 140 characters or less. One hundred and forty words . . . now you’re talking. But a mere seven score letters . . . I don’t think so.

I know there are many positive things about brevity. In our hectic world, it’s become an absolute necessity. Still, some things—to be expressed more clearly and (dare I say it, “entertainingly”)—demand more than two and a half sentences.

I was recently reading an article entitled “Tweets Before Twitter,” and it gave me cause to reconsider the prospect of using twitter to share worthwhile ideas. It described “ingenious brevity inspired 150 years ago by telegrams. . . . when people had to pay as much as $1 per Morse-coded word to dispatch a cable overseas, only a robber baron could afford to be loquacious.”

Now, that’s a sobering thought, especially since one of the dollars of that era would likely translate into about $214.17 today (by rough estimate). With that incentive, many telegraphs employed cryptic shorthand similar to the increasingly familiar terminology of the tweetworld.

However, one example they cited was different. It did not rely on learning a new language of contemporary abbreviations. Instead, it appealed to a much older language, Latin. Here’s the example they reported.

Monotremes oviparous, ovum meroblastic.

Translation: In the 19th century one of the greatest scientific debates was whether the platypus laid eggs, a fact that zoologist William Hay Caldwell was finally able to confirm in 1884. Here he uses Latin to cable his discovery from Australia to the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Since Latin had words for high-level scientific concepts, Caldwell could condense an entire paper into one brief sentence, letting colleagues know that platypus embryos develop like birds instead of mammals.

If I could remember the Latin I studied back in high school . . . And, if the people I was tweeting could read what I was saying . . . I just might reconsider my decision not to tweet. But I regard that event highly unlikely.

For now I’ll remain more than content to post a couple of times a week to Mere Inkling, in the hopes that a few of my words prove helpful or entertaining.

Finally, although the great unknown of platypus parenting was discovered in 1884, I’ve been pondering another mystery of the Ornithorhynchus anatinus. Why was it, that C.S. Lewis failed to include these wondrous creatures in Narnia? Perhaps it was because their semi-aquatic nature meant they would be of little value in the battles that marked the events recorded in the Chronicles? I have little doubt that despite the absence of their mention, Narnia’s waters teemed with their frolicking duck bills, otter feet and beaver tails.

Vivacious Vocabularies

October 24, 2012 — 19 Comments

One reason I love reading C.S. Lewis arises from his adroit use of the English language. His vocabulary is immense. It is pleasant to run into words one seldom encounters on the drab byways of modern journalism and tangled thoroughfares of contemporary “social media.”

Consider the following example. I was exploring The Allegory of Love when I read this: “There is nothing in literature which does not, in some degree, percolate into life.”

What a delightful verb! It evokes for me recollections of my youth when my parents would refer to our coffee pot as the percolator. Simultaneously, it reminds me of more recent—less happy—usages: “I’m sorry, but inadequate soil percolation means you’ll have to install a far more expensive septic system than normally required.”

It’s discouraging when you consider the sad state of modern vocabularies. I read somewhere that people typically only use about 10% of the words they know. So a common vocabulary of 5,000 spoken words would mean they know (i.e. can recognize written or audible forms of) about 50,000 words. Shakespeare used 29,000 words in his plays and sonnets, suggesting an expansive vocabulary. Likewise, brilliant authors like C.S. Lewis would boast a praiseworthy mental dictionary.

I am sometimes curious about my own vocabulary. I consciously attempt—in conversation as well as writing—to utilize at least 15% of the words I know. After all, the English language is so rich, it’s criminal to limit ourselves to pedestrian words. It’s like having all the ingredients for a delicious feast available to us and settling for slapping together a peanut butter sandwich.

I also love the precision that comes from using the exact word that suits the occasion. For example, in a thriller it matters greatly how the hero’s nemesis inflicts injury. A skilled writer would never say “Professor Moriarty cut Holmes.” Instead, we would learn that he slashed . . . stabbed . . . sliced . . . scarred . . . carved . . . or perhaps he merely nicked the detective. Likewise, we would probably know the type of weapon he was using. It would not be a mere “knife.” It might be a saber . . . a dagger . . . a pocketknife . . . scalpel . . . carving knife . . . or perhaps even a bayonet.

Lewis addressed this richness in vocabulary in an essay on “Transposition” which appears in The Weight of Glory.

If the richer system is to be represented in the poorer at all, this can only be by giving each element in the poorer system more than one meaning. The transposition of the richer into the poorer must, so to speak, be algebraical, not arithmetical. If you are to translate from a language which has a large vocabulary into a language that has a small vocabulary, then you must be allowed to use several words in more than one sense. If you are to write a language with twenty-two vowel sounds in an alphabet with only five vowel characters than you must be allowed to give each of those five characters more than one value. If you are making a piano version of a piece originally scored for an orchestra, then the same piano notes which represent flutes in one passage must also represent violins in another.

It is wonderful to be fortunate enough to speak a language with a diverse vocabulary. English is such a tongue. Now, if we could just simplify its complexities and purge its irregularities, we would enjoy the best of all linguistic worlds.