Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Citizenship of Language




I'm happy to announce that one month from now I will be returning--briefly, at least--to Wyoming Catholic College. I am participating in their first-ever Founders' Scholarship competition, which involves two days in Lander writing an essay, giving a speech, and having an interview. The award is a four-year full tuition scholarship--so you can be sure I'm keyed up!

In preparation for speech and essay writing, I recently finished an excellent little book called The Office of Assertion, by Scott F. Crider, an English professor at the University of Dallas. The book, covering topics of invention, organization, and style, is a brief but handy overview of the "art of rhetoric for the academic essay". It was a good, sound refresher for me on techniques of essay writing--but I also loved the way Professor Crider talked about the purpose of writing. Quoting a fine passage from Richard Weaver, he reminds us that even a single sentence is a thing of power: "[T]he right to utter a sentence is one of the very greatest liberties.... The liberty to impose this formal unity is a liberty to handle the world, to remake it, if only a little, and to hand it to others in a shape which may influence their actions." Crider specifically emphasizes that the purpose of an academic essay is to lead the soul of the reader towards some truth inherent in the subject. I'd never heard it put that way before. But I liked it a lot.

Near the end of his book, Crider quotes again from Richard Weaver (it seems I shall have to read some Weaver after this), introducing a concept he called "the language citizen": "Like the political citizen defined by Aristotle, language citizenship makes one empowered to decide. The work is best carried on, however, by those who are aware that language must have some connection to the intelligential world...."

This phrase--language citizenship--intrigued me and plunged me into a long muse. If there are language citizens, then, by extention of metaphor, there must be a language city. But what is this city? Is it the collective sphere of the ideas, thoughts, and words of humanity? Do we all have this citizenship--by virtue of being creatures who communicate--or do we have to "earn" it through diligent study of using language well? Does this citizenship imply a duty? What is that duty? Is it merely to keep the rules of grammar and good style, or does it run deeper? Does it have something to do with "soul-leading"--using language to bring the light of truth to another human being?

It occurred to me at this point that if this last point were correct--if the proper use of language were to communicate truth--then the concept of language citizenship is not a mere metaphor. It's actually the lifeblood of real citizenship. Demagogues abuse freedom and justice through their abuse of language--by clouding the truth through words instead of revealing it. Remember how Weaver said above that even a sentence has the ability to influence others' actions? This, then, is the duty of the actual citizen and language citizen--to both seek the truth through skillful use of words, and to act upon it.